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Trout clout

State-run fish farms to get more of anglers' fees to boost populations.

October 18, 2005|Bill Becher | Special to The Times

ANGLERS will get a fair return on the purchase of their fishing licenses under a new law Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed that ensures funds to boost wild and hatchery-reared trout.

Under the measure, as much as one-third of the income from sportfishing license sales must be used to keep hatcheries running and to help restore populations of native fish. Trout fishing, more than any other recreational activity, sustains small, eastern Sierra towns that depend on tourist dollars. Big lakes and streams from Lee Vining to Lone Pine offer outstanding fishing for brown, rainbow and brook trout, but in recent years fewer fish have been planted in those and other California water bodies, though anglers pay more for their annual fishing licenses.

The 13 state-run trout hatcheries produced about 3.5 million pounds of fish last year -- down from more than 5 million pounds in 1990 -- while the cost of a license increased by more than 50% to $31.75 over the same period. Fish are reared in giant ponds, fed food pellets, hauled by truck or aircraft to lakes or streams or urban park ponds, and "stocked" into the water. Fish go in, anglers yank them out in a put-and-take cycle that is the backbone of much of California's freshwater angling.

"Anglers keep paying more and more and getting less and less. We need to stop that trend," says Brad Willis, a Fish and Game Department union representative who works at the agency's Mojave River hatchery. He says many hatcheries today are operating at half their capacity.

The new law has a mechanism to boost fish output by linking license sales to production at hatcheries. Beginning in 2007, state-run fish farms must produce 2.25 pounds of trout per license sold, an equivalent of about 5.25 million pounds of fish at current license sales levels. By 2009 the Fish and Game Department must produce 2.75 pounds of trout per license.

Also, $2 million will help build the state's wild trout program and hire seven new biologists. While stocked rainbow trout offer abundant, easy fishing, many serious anglers prefer wily native fish. Some of those species, including golden and Lahontan cutthroat trout, are rare or endangered. To boost their numbers, the new law requires that by 2011, one-quarter of the fish produced at hatcheries be native species. Assemblyman David Cogdill (R-Modesto), whose district includes popular fishing spots in Mono County, added that provision to his bill, the Inland Fisheries Restoration Act, to win support from fly fishermen and CalTrout, whose members often favor catch-and-release fishing for native fish.

"This means there's going to be trout in the future for us and our children," says Brett Matzke, CalTrout wild trout manager. "The trout program has now become a priority issue for the Department [of Fish and Game] where it's been the evil stepchild for the last 20 years."

Despite support from anglers, Fish and Game managers opposed the spending requirements in the bill, arguing they needed more flexibility with their budget. They also expressed concern the bill could result in cuts in other programs, such as wildlife management and marine protection. Further, Greg Hurner, the department's deputy director, says it will be difficult to produce more fish, as well as more varieties of fish, due to poor conditions and equipment at the hatcheries.

Schwarzenegger expressed similar concerns when he signed the bill into law Oct. 7, saying it contains "a number of problematic provisions that must be amended so that the production goals are reasonable and DFG retains the flexibility to implement this bill in a manner that does the least harm to other important environmental programs."

But supporters say the new law will save the state-run hatchery program from collapse. They note production at the Fish Springs hatchery near Big Pine declined from 500,000 pounds of trout annually to 275,000 in recent years.

"If this bill hadn't passed, you'd probably have seen half of the trout hatcheries in California closed in the next one or two years," says Tim Alpers, who raises trophy fish at his trout farm near Mammoth Lakes. "The money was just spent other places. The Department of Fish and Game had a different priority than their hatchery system."

Reports completed earlier this year confirm that suspicion. The California legislative analyst and the state auditor found that the Fish and Game Department has been using money from fishing license sales to cover shortfalls in other department programs, leaving less money for hatcheries.

Supporters also note that saving the hatcheries is an important step toward protecting a fishing tradition in California. Many anglers cut their teeth on planted trout at urban ponds and mountain lakes. Planted rainbow trout may not be the hardest fish to catch, but it has been the entry for thousands of children into the world of angling.

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