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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Politics and Fishing Collide in Harrisburg...

Pennsylvania fishermen get a side of politics served up with their trout this year

Mark Demko

With the region’s mentored youth trout fishing day now in the books and opening day coming up Saturday, the focus for most anglers right now is on the state’s trout season. Thanks to happenings in Harrisburg, however, some in the angling community are keeping a close eye on developments concerning the agency that stocks those millions of trout each spring, but for a very different reason.
Since he took over as Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director in 2010, John Arway has led the agency though some major changes, all the while doing so on a flat or shrinking budget. Over the past eight years, the Fish & Boat Commission has introduced mentored youth days to encourage kids to pick up angling, added programs to recruit more women and focused on initiatives designed to attract new and diverse audiences to the sport.  (Click below for full Article)

What the agency hasn’t been able to do, even though its expenses continue to escalate, is raise the price of a fishing license, since that requires the approval of the state Legislature. The cost of a resident license, $22.90, hasn’t changed since 2005, while the Fish & Boat Commission’s operating and personnel expenses have risen substantially.
Now, there are reports in the media that some members of the Legislature want to oust Arway by passing a bill that would restrict the term of the PFBC executive director to eight years. That bill, Senate Bill 935, currently with the Senate Game & Fisheries Committee, would effectively end Arway’s term in office if passed since he reached the eight-year mark earlier this month.
The bill was allegedly introduced in response to Arway’s proposal to close hatcheries and reduce trout stocking in areas that included the districts of legislators who were not in favor of a license fee increase. Another bill introduced in early 2017, Senate Bill 30, which would have allowed the agency to set its own license prices, has stalled, and it appears any additional measures to provide the agency with opportunities to raise license fees have been moved to the back burner for now.
Not surprisingly, most sportsmen’s groups are opposed to SB935, noting it sets a dangerous example by chipping away at the autonomy of the agency.
“The term of the director of the PFBC is and should remain in control of the Fish & Boat Commissioners,” says Joe Baylog, president of the Forks of the Delaware Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “The last thing we need is politicians using the fish commission as a political football.”
Baylog says the PFBC has done a good job under Arway’s direction, with the mentored youth fishing days gaining more and more support and the agency focusing on new initiatives, such as sponsoring fishing instructor courses that allow certified, trained instructors to teach youth and adults to fish without requiring them to buy a license.
“This [bill] does not seem like an act of legislative oversight, but more political overreach and strong-arming,” he says. “The Fish & Boat Commission was designed to act as an independent agency to serve the sporting people of our state based on what’s best for our streams and fisheries.
“This action should be alarming to all Pennsylvanians who value the outdoors, because it sets a dangerous precedent. Hopefully, our legislative leaders will see the wisdom in keeping politics out our fishing holes; these special places are meant to be shared with our family and friends.”
Delaware River Shad Fishermen’s Association President Mike Topping agrees, saying the only reason to remove the executive director is if he has acted in a manner that’s not in the best interest of the agency.
“For years both agencies have been operating without the ability to set their own fees and therefore have been forced to operate with limited funds,” Topping says. “Their primary source of income is license fees over which the Legislature has control … the Legislature should remove itself from this control and allow both agencies to set their own fees.”
Erik Broesicke, president of the Monocacy Chapter of Trout Unlimited, says he doesn’t always agree with the PFBC’s policies, but he can appreciate the difficult position the agency finds itself in since it’s almost completely funded by fishing and boating license sales.
“​Removing Director Arway does not solve the problem of declining revenue and increasing costs,” Broesicke says. “The services the PFBC provide cost money, and there has not been an increase in the cost of a fishing license since 2005. In the meantime, our legislators, who have to approve license increases, received automatic cost-of-living pay raises. That seems like a disconnect to me.
“On the one hand they realize the need to increase (their own) salaries due to rising costs, but refuse to acknowledge, or act on, that same fact when it comes to the PFBC.”
At the state level, the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, which represents dozens of sportsmen’s groups across the commonwealth, has also come out in opposition to the bill.
“We do not believe that limiting the term of the executive director by statute serves any purpose,” says PFSC Director of Government Affairs John Kline. “The [PFBC] Board of Commissioners should be the ones making this decision. Passage of SB935 would set a precedent that further erodes the independence of our service agencies.”
Arway says he’ll retire if the bill is passed but plans to keep working to strengthen the PFBC and angling and boating opportunities in the state if it doesn’t. Over, the past four years, his agency has made significant cuts to many of its programs and services, including 66 jobs to help reduce payroll, pension and health care costs.
In September, the agency’s board directed him to find another $2 million in savings, which led to the proposal to close three hatcheries: Oswayo Trout Hatchery in Potter County, Union City hatchery in Erie County and the Van Dyke Research Station in Juniata County. As a result of Oswayo’s closing, the Fish & Boat Commission would also have to cut 220,000 fish from its trout stocking program.
“Oswayo costs more to stock and transport a fish than any other hatchery that we have,” he says.
Arway notes the final decision on closing the hatcheries doesn’t need to be made until July 1, which marks the start of the next fiscal year.
“We had to come up with $2 million in cuts in the hatchery program because right now all of our other programs are down 20 to 30 percent in staffing,” he says. “Hatcheries is only down 10 percent, but hatcheries is 25 percent of our budget. In order to cut hatcheries, we need to close facilities so that there’s an equivalent drawdown in hatcheries as there is in the other programs.”
While his future may be uncertain, Arway acknowledges that support from sportsmen on this issue has been overwhelming, especially considering the agency hasn’t had a license increase in years.
“We have less anglers today than we had five years ago, and we have greater expenses,” Arway says. “Since 2005 expenses have gone up 37 percent, [while] fishing license fees haven’t gone up a nickel. How can you continue to produce the same products, services and goods for less people that are bringing less revenue, [coupled] with escalating expenses?
“The customers get that. Our anglers and boaters have been so supportive in recognizing that license fees need to go up for us to sustain our operations and meet their expectations. But the Legislature doesn’t get it.”
Mark Demko is a freelance writer. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @markdemko1.