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Hatchery Cutbacks May Disappoint California Anglers

Layoffs at the state Department of Fish and Game threaten to trap fish in their pens. Volunteers are stepping in to help release the fish into waterways.

August 06, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Abrupt cuts of seasonal workers at the California Department of Fish and Game have threatened to strand hatchery fish in their pens, leaving the state's lakes and streams with fewer fish during peak tourist season.

In the wake of the layoffs, which preceded the cuts in the state budget approved by lawmakers last week, rural counties and volunteers have been scrambling to help keep the hatcheries running smoothly and anglers happy.

More than three dozen legislators, many from rural districts, attempted to stave off the cuts, but their appeal in a letter to the department's top brass failed. Eighteen seasonal workers were laid off from the department's Hatcheries and Fish Planting Facilities program last month.

In Mono County, officials received an emergency $10,000 from the Board of Supervisors to help rehire five seasonal workers at the Hot Creek Hatchery and Inyo County's Fish Springs Hatchery. Those cuts would have left no drivers available to deliver trout to some of the state's most popular lakes and streams. "The one thing we do not want to hit the angling rumor mill is that Fish and Game will not be stocking fish in Mono County for the rest of the season," said Mono County's director of economic development, Dan Lyster. "That would be devastating to our economy.... We have stopped the proverbial bleeding."

Residents -- from the owner of a private trout farm to the former county sheriff -- began volunteering their services at Hot Creek last week to pick eggs, clean ponds and deliver fish. The town of Mammoth Lakes is also pitching in, and community leaders are appealing to the pocketbooks of private business owners, said Emile Rummel, president of the Mammoth Lakes Sportfishing Assn. and a member of the Mono County Fisheries Commission.

Fourteen state hatcheries provide trout to the state's lakes and streams, and eight others breed salmon and steelhead. In the Eastern Sierras, the facilities release about a million trout into waterways for urban vacationers to pluck out.

Mono County has long supplemented those trout with so-called trophy trout, weighing more than two pounds. Still, Tim Alpers, who privately farms the trophies, said his fish are "icing on the cake." The Fish and Game hatcheries, he said, are "the lifeblood" of the region's fishing economy.

Lyster said he has been assured that Fish and Game will continue to stock the region's waters. But there is no question that the battered department will be scaling back, said Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano, and other counties may fare worse than Mono.

The budget that Gov. Gray Davis signed Saturday dealt a blow to the hatcheries budget, which is expected to shrink by at least $1.6 million from last year's budget of $15.5 million. Although Martarano said many of the details remain murky, the cuts could lead to the closing of "one or two hatcheries." That comes on top of other fiscal pressures. The department had already snatched $6 million from the Fish and Game Preservation Fund, which collects fishing and hunting license fees, to compensate for General Fund cuts. Then the department came up short unexpectedly at the end of the fiscal year and implemented a 10% cut. That's when the seasonal aides were told to stop reporting for work.

Fish and Game Director Robert C. Hight began meeting with local communities in May to plead for assistance. How deeply the cuts will affect the fish supply in California's lakes and streams remains to be seen.

"The one thing we do know is, we are going to be planting less fish," Martarano said. "We just don't know yet how that's going to work or where."

Fish and Game staff will meet in the coming weeks to overhaul the fish stocking program. Lakes and streams that are more self-sustaining will then receive fewer fish, Martarano said. A meeting is also scheduled for late August with federal and local officials to find ways to run the hatchery program more efficiently, he said.

Humboldt County's Mad River Hatchery, which breeds steelhead, could face closure, said manager Wilber Cartwright. That would turn the popular Mad River into a catch-and-release waterway in a matter of years, he said.

Most of the lawmakers who wrote to department officials last month are from remote counties that rely almost exclusively on summer tourism -- much of it from the Los Angeles basin -- to survive.

"Many of the hatcheries that serve our districts inform us that they must discontinue or severely reduce deliveries without their seasonal aides," they wrote. "Now, during the height of the fishing season, is the worst time possible to deal a blow to hatchery operations."

Assemblyman David Cogdill (R-Modesto) led the effort. Hotels and guides in several rural counties "have already received cancellations for this summer," he wrote, "as word spreads that the hatcheries are receiving another budget cut."

Cogdill is promoting legislation that would ensure that, in the future, 45% of the revenue from fishing license fees is directed to the state's hatcheries program. Fishing license fees generated nearly $50 million in revenue in 2002, according to the department's Web site. Those dollars are blended with hunting license fees in the Preservation Fund and help fund a wide variety of programs.

A 45% allocation of those fishing license fees would have exceeded the entire hatcheries budget. Many license fees are also paid by marine sportfishermen, who don't rely on hatcheries at all, Martarano said. But Cogdill and others say anglers assume that their license dollars are going to the state's fishing programs.

His bill, AB 590, is stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, but Cogdill says he plans to raise it again in January.

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