Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon County) sees the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commissioners as lacking in accountability principally because their appointment to a single eight-year term isolates them from legislative oversight.
Heffley, a member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, announced that he is introducing legislation, House Bill 798, which would reduce the length of the term of service from eight years to four years for the board of commissioners of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
Heffley made the announcement at the Firefly Trout Hatchery in Lehighton accompanied by Marcia Hahn (138th Legislative District, R-Northampton) of the Game and Fisheries Committee, and Kirk Cressley, who with his wife Denise, are owners of the hatchery.
The Firefly Trout Hatchery is trying to re-establish a 111-year-old fish hatchery and nursery on the Saw Mill Run in Lehighton. The fish raceways had been operated by several owners, including Kriss Pines, until being shut down approximately two years ago over a leasing dispute with a previous owner.
Although the site had been operating for over a century, because it closed down for two years, it is no longer "grandfathered" to operate on the Saw Mill Run and must reapply to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. During this reapplication process, brown trout were found in the stream and were believed to have reproduced there. Therefore, the F&B changed the rating of the stream from "exceptional value" to Class A, a rating so pristine that a hatchery may not discharge into it.
The Firefly Trout Hatchery has been working with the Lehigh River Stocking Association to create a five-year cooperative venture to raise trout to stock the Lehigh River.
"The Lehigh River Stocking Association is a nonprofit organization that has been restoring the trout fishing in the Lehigh River for the last 21 years," explained Matt McConnell, president of the Lehigh River Stocking Association, a group that has annually been stocking about 12,000 legal size trout in Carbon and Lehigh counties. "It has become harder and harder to raise money to buy fish. The fish that we stock cost about $3 to $5 a piece to purchase."
The group was hoping to raise trout for pennies on the dollar for what they can purchase them for.
When McConnell learned about the Firefly venture, he suggested that the LRSA lend its expertise to the Cressley's to teach them how to raise trout in the nursery, and in exchange the LRSA would have inexpensive trout to stock the Lehigh River with for five years.
When they proposed this to the F&B, the commission initiated a study of the creek, and the study suggested that because of the presence of 8-inch brown trout, it should be reclassified as a Class A waterway.
"We stock hundreds of fingerling fish in the Pohopoco Creek which comes up the Saw Mill Run in the fall," said angler Jim Deebel.
"Because they found some 8-inch brown trout in the creek, they are 'assuming' that they spawned in this creek and they want to reclassify the Saw Mill Run as Class A, which adds these 'do not degrade' restrictions. Although this hatchery has been here for 111 years, without any degradation to the river, now all of a sudden because it was down for two years, they are putting a big roadblock in front of us."
Heffley, expressing criticism of the Fish & Boat Commission said, "I believe that this is just a microcosm of some of the problems that we are seeing across the state. Currently, the Fish & Boat Commission stocks about 3.2 million fish. In the past they stopped as many as 5.2 million fish per year."
He continued to note that the number of fish nurseries is down, the number of fishing licenses is down, while the price of fishing licenses is up. He feels there is a lack of accountability.
Heffley cited this is an example of overregulation that was bad for the anglers and an impediment to economic growth in the state, and an example of how the Fish & Boat Commission lacks accountability to both the legislature and the people of the commonwealth.
"Co-ops promote fishing and promote conservation throughout the region," Heffley said. "If we can't get this done how can we create jobs and get economic growth across the state. This is absurd. This legislation is one step to address across this state."
The proposed legislation, House Bill 798, would reduce the term of Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commissioners from eight years and would allow the commissioners to be reappointed with the consent of the Pennsylvania Senate. In its current form, which will be reviewed and possibly amended by committee, it "grandfathers" the existing commissioners. Unchanged in this proposed legislation, the commissioners are not compensated except for travel expenses.
According to the bullet points in Heffley's presentation, House Bill 798 would:
Ÿ Allow for added legislative oversight of the Fish & Boat Commission.
Ÿ Hold commissioners more accountable to the public through the appointment and confirmation process.
Ÿ Establish a term of four years with the opportunity for additional terms through reappointment.
Ÿ Remove limitations on service allowing for multiple four-year terms of continuous service. (Vacancies may still be filled for partial terms.)
Ÿ Fulfill the commission's mission to look after the boating and fishing interests of Pennsylvanians.
This legislation currently awaits consideration in the House Game and Fisheries Committee.