Anglers will have fewer trout to target this year, following a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission decision to stop purchasing outsourced trout.
The agency has scrapped a program it began five years ago in which it purchased hatchery trout from Tellico Fish Farm in North Carolina to make up for the 2001 closing of Pennsylvania's Big Spring hatchery. Tellico had charged the state an average of $1.15 per fish (last year it was $1.27) -- significantly less than the $2.14 it costs to raise a trout at a Fish and Boat Commission facility. When this year's Tellico bid came in at $3.38 per trout, the commission drew the line.
"It was all about cost," said the agency's fisheries management chief Leroy Young. "We couldn't afford it."
The cutbacks will be spread across many lakes and streams to minimize the impact on angling, but, he said, "we can't make up the difference."
Trout by the numbers
Cost per hatchery trout raised in Pa.: $2.14
Average cost per outsourced trout: $1.15
2009 cost per outsourced trout: $3.38
Fewer trout to be stocked in state in 2009: 130,000
The change will mean up to 130,000 fewer fish out of an annual total of 3.3 million stocked trout, and may be the first of several changes anglers can expect as the commission re-evaluates its most expensive resource.
In the spring, the agency plans to release a cost-benefit analysis of its entire trout-stocking program. This fall, it will unveil its first new trout management plan in more than a decade.
"The plan will address both stocked and wild fish," said Young. "We're looking at how to create the best coldwater fisheries in the state, and how to get the most use from the resource. Anything's possible."
The commission recently told legislators in its annual budget report that the stocking program costs $7.2 million, but Young indicated the bottom line is actually higher, and a more realistic assessment will be presented to commissioners before their quarterly meeting in April.
"We've always looked just at hatchery operating costs," he said, "but our new calculations will include every aspect of trout-stocking, from capital costs to staffing. They'll be very different."
As the board is being asked to review costs, it will consider a number of proposals aimed at maximizing use of the resource. One would expand the fingerling trout program. The commission now stocks about 1.4 million trout fingerlings in more than 50 rivers and lakes statewide, in addition to the 3.1 million adults it grows at state hatcheries, and another 80,000 adult trout it receives from federal facilities. The agency gives another 1 million fingerlings to conservation groups and sportsmen's clubs to raise and release through a cooperative program. Some waterways, such as the Youghiogheny River tailrace, receive both adult and fingerling trout.
"A put-grow-and-take program is cheaper," Young said. "It gets fish out of the hatchery system earlier -- at six months instead of 18 months -- and they look better and have more of a wild-fish behavior. It only takes a year for a fingerling to reach catchable size."
On the downside, fingerling mortality can be high.
"It works better in some waters than others," he said. "The Little Juniata is a pretty effective fingerling fishery. We need to identify traits in places where the program works so we can expand it to new streams."
This summer, said Young, biologists will begin a survey of some of the state's fingerling waters by planting fin-clipped fish and monitoring their survival.
Commission staff are urging the board to give preliminary approval next month to a plan to stock Early Season Trout Stocked Waters sooner, so stocking trucks can get to more streams shortly before opening day. As it is now, 45 lakes plus the Youghiogheny and Shenango river outflows are open in March, but closed for two weeks in April to get replenished for spring. The new plan would have the lakes stocked in March and open year-round.
"There are 50 truck trips we'd gain if we do this," said Young. "Streams where trout movement is a problem, we'd get to stock closer to opening day."
The commission is also trying to advance a plan to create 16 Trophy Trout Waters: 16 streams or eight lakes and eight streams stocked exclusively with big fish. But at least one board member's reaction has been lukewarm so far.
"It would turn places like the Yough outflow, which is one of the places mentioned, into a madhouse," said commissioner Tom Shetterly of Charleroi, "and it would take trout away from other places. That would make legislators mad."
Other issues are being discussed, including what to do about fall and winter stockings. A recent commission survey shows that just 5 percent of anglers target trout in fall, when many more turn to steelheading and deer hunting.
Anglers such as retired mail carrier Charles McDonnell of Pittsburgh agree the money could be better spent elsewhere.
"When I fish in fall, it's for steelhead," McDonnell said. "I like the new brown trout program [the commission is] starting in Erie. I'd rather see them put more money into that. They'd get more bang for the buck."