Fish and Boat consults with stakeholders on stocking authority proposal

By John Hayes
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kids fishing events may get more complicated to organize if Fish and Boat approves a proposal that would require prior authorization for private fish stockings.

Members of Allison Park Sportsmen’s Club have good reason to be proud of their annual youth fishing events. The club purchases trout from a commercial hatchery and stocks them at Fawcett Fields in Shaler and North Park Lake, sponsoring annual free fishing affairs for kids from 2 to 12.

Club members are concerned, however, that their youth program may be disrupted or shut down. A proposal being considered by the state Fish and Boat Commission would change the way private stockings occur in Pennsylvania. If passed it would put new burdens on individuals and groups that want to put fish in so they can take them out later.

Dave Nihart, the agency’s chief of fisheries management, said the proposed rule changes are not focused on activities for kids, fishing clubs or even the commercial hatcheries where the fish are grown.

“What we want to do is create a fish stocking authorization program to enhance existing protections against the spread of aquatic invasive species,” he said. “We manage the fisheries in these lakes and streams. We want to know what’s going in there and make sure it’s safe for the wild fish that live there, as well as the fish that [Fish and Boat] stocks.”

In 30 states aquatic wildlife management agencies require that independent stockings receive prior approval by verifying that no diseases or invasive species will tag along with the stocked fish.

In Pennsylvania, no permissions are required for independent stocking. Authority over water quality issues is shared by the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Boat Commission and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local water authorities have some degree of oversight and self-monitoring is expected of companies and individuals that impact water. 

The proposal would combine two chapters of the Pennsylvania Code and regulate the introduction of living organisms into Commonwealth waters, establish a new authorization mechanism for private stockings and require more information regarding the importation of aquatic species.

“This proposed rulemaking will increase paperwork and will create new paperwork requirements,” states a passage from the proposal. “Persons intending to stock fish in waters of this Commonwealth will be required to submit a stocking authorization application to the Commission, and the Commission will issue an approved stocking authorization or denial letter.”

Out-of-state hatcheries would be required to document assurances of fish health before trucking them into the state.

“In addition, persons transporting fish into this Commonwealth or stocking fish in waters of this Commonwealth may be required to possess a fish health certificate when conducting those activities to ensure fish are free of specific pathogens, diseases or parasites,” says the rulemaking proposal.

The issue has drawn the attention of sportsmen’s clubs, fire departments and other groups that independently stock fish for private or public consumption. The new rules would impact programs ranging from Trout in the Classroom to municipalities that stock local waters or augment Fish and Boat stockings.

An open letter, an “action alert” to anglers from the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association, noted that “certain sections of the proposed rule lack concise language and would in fact give the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission broad authority to approve, deny, or restrict fish stocking in the future.”

The missive went viral on the internet and outdoors groups forwarded it to their members, including the rank and file of Penn’s Woods West Trout Unlimited.
Fish and Boat spokesman Mike Parker said more than 1,000 written comments about the proposal were submitted to Fish and Boat, “most of them opposed.” 

At public meetings hosted by Fish and Boat, he said, people commented they were wary of vague language describing the possible new private stocking procedure. They wanted to know who would make authorization decisions and whether they’d have time to adjust for their spring kids events.

“That’s understandable,” said Mr. Nihart. “The formal proposal isn’t written yet. What is out there is a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Pennsylvania Bulletin,” which publishes the official business of the General Assembly. “It’s a draft that gives [Fish and Boat], stakeholders and legislators a place to begin the conversation.”

If implemented, he said, stocking authorization would be phased in through several stages and would not be complete until 2025. Who determines whether a group’s stocking program gets approved?

“No one,” said Mr. Nihart. “No person would approve or deny stocking authorization requests.”

Fish and Boat intends to buy a computer system that would receive and process the requests, he said. According to the draft proposal, the system would cost the Commission an estimated $4.6 million to be paid over five years.

All private stocking requests would be initially assumed suitable for approval. The computer would confirm the hatcheries’ health certifications, and stocking plans would be compared to data indicating water quality, species, quantity, proposed date and area to be stocked as well as survey results showing aquatic life that is already in the waterway. Mr. Nihart suggested that if the algorithm were to find a problem with a stocking plan, the authorization procedure may encourage the group to explore an alternative plan.

Fish and Boat is betting that viewed from a conservation standpoint, anglers and other stakeholders will find it hard to argue against further protection of Pennsylvania waterways.

Lenny Lichvar, installed Sept. 17 as president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, said pursuit of some type of stocking authorization process is needed for multiple reasons.

“Currently, Commission fisheries managers do not know what is being put in the water by clubs and individuals, and without that knowledge it is not possible to make accurate management decisions,”  said the former Fish and Boat commissioner. Lichvar, of Boswell, Somerset County, has volunteered or worked with conservation organizations for 40 years. He is currently manager of the Somerset Conservation District.

“Private stockings are not always done in a resource-sound manner,” he said, “such as stocking in a stream that already has a viable population of wild trout or stocking the wrong species such as putting hatchery-raised brook trout in waterways that already have a wild population of brook trout.”

The first stage of the proposed plan is to gather information for two years to close the data gaps as to what is really being placed in our waterways before any recommendations for change are even considered, he said. His biggest concern about the proposal is that more time is being given to bring fish stocking stakeholders on board.

“We find it unfortunate that it now appears that the Commissioners will now delay their implementation of the authorization,” said Mr. Lichvar. “That simply will push back the time frame on something that has been needed for far too long already.”

John Hayes: [email protected]