By: Jim Matthews
Trout plant cuts in 2015 are really up to state legislature
In early November, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) posted a document on its website explaining it would be cutting the poundage of trout stocked by about 50 percent in 2015, causing an uproar within the fishing community.
Stafford Lair, chief of the fisheries branch for DFW, explained for the past four years, DFW had approximately an additional $2.5 million per year for the trout hatchery program. That money was granted in the budget process, allowing DFW to spend down a hatchery improvement account that is allocated money each year. For the funds to be spent, the legislature must approve DFW’s request to use this money.
Under the guise of budget cutting, the legislature has not granted DFW use of these funds for a number of years, allowing the fund to grow and accrue interest. While the money was stockpiling, DFW hatchery program was suffering. Fewer and fewer fish were being planted because costs were skyrocketing. Finally, four years ago, the legislature allowed DFW to spend money in that account.
“For the first time, we showed dramatic increases in the number of fish we were able to plant, closer to the 2.75 pounds per license sold that was mandated [by the legislature]. We’ve been living on that increased authority the last few years,” Lehr said.
However, the additional money allocation from the hatchery fund ends June 20, 2015, meaning DFW will lose an additional $2.5 million it was previously authorized to spend.
While DFW is planning to go back to the legislature and ask them to be allowed to use this money annually into the future, it could not plan on the funding. A new stocking regime had to be crafted to allow the state to operate on its regular hatchery budget allocation without the additional money. The net result would be a 50 percent reduction in the poundage of fish that could be raised.
Lehr said the hatchery program faced unprecedented additional costs it has never had to incur before. While the increasing cost of fish food is a major one, he said that water and energy costs have also skyrocketed. He used the state’s well-known Fillmore Hatchery as just one example. The water costs there have increased 600 percent. To comply with new state and federal regulations, there is comprehensive water quality monitoring that was never done before. DFW also has to monitor and treat for invasive species. To meet the requirements of a hatchery lawsuit settlement, they now only raise triploid (or sterile) rainbow trout for the catchable program, at a greater cost.
The hatchery program has also been plagued with a fleet of older hatchery trucks that were forced to comply with state air quality regulations. The older vehicles were not designed for these retrofits, and stocking runs that only took five hours in the past now take 10 hours because the vehicles have to be stopped and allowed to cool down so major damage does not occur. That means twice as many trips and overtime on the longer runs.
All of these things have hammered DFW hatcheries. The additional $2.5 million in annual funding really was a shot in the arm to the near-$19 million hatchery budget.
Accordingly, DFW plans to rear 1.6 million pounds of trout in 2015-2016, as opposed to the 3 million-plus currently going through the system.
Lehr said he and the staff have looked hard at how and where to cut the stocking program. They decided to plant about the same number (or even more) fish overall, but they would average much smaller in size. In many waters, DFW would plant vastly more, smaller trout where the state could let the natural forage within a lake or river grow the trout to catchable and bigger sizes.
Lehr added waters such as urban Southern California fisheries would continue to receive about the same number of the larger-sized catchable fish as in the past.
“I’m focusing on the bigger picture. We’re planning for more put-grow-and-take fisheries while others will get the same size catchables. We should have the same number of trout going out, but they will just average smaller,” Lehr said.
This, of course, will not come close to the 2.75 pounds of trout per licensed angler the legislature set as a goal for the agency. The goal was being met (or nearly so) by DFW the last few years when legislators gave the agency annual access to the special hatchery fund.
The cuts are not a done deal. While DFW has to start planning for less money (the trout are produced on about a 1.5-year pipeline), Lehr said DFW was also planning to go back to the legislature early in 2015 and ask for access to the special hatchery account every year. This would make the funding more predictable and DFW would be better able to meet the legislature’s mandates and recommendations on trout plants.