September 3, 2013
Federal Hatcheries Headed to the Chopping Block?
EDITOR'S NOTE: As we first reported last week, the rumblings of the Fish and Wildlife Service shuttering the nation's mitigation fish hatcheries have persisted, despite the FWS's constant avoidance of direct questions regarding that decision. Today, Etta Pettijohn has more on the story- and what may happen in the coming days ahead.

When multiple news sources last week began reporting that the historic D.C. Booth National Fish Hatchery (NFH) in South Dakota was slated for imminent closure later this year, spokespersons for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) dodged any direct response to the planned shutdown.

On Aug. 26, Gavin Shire, speaking on behalf of the FWS from its headquarters in Washington, said: "We haven't made any decisions yet (on hatchery closings) but the outcome may be that at some point some fish hatcheries in the system could be impacted."

In the interim, multiple FWS spokespersons have echoed that no decisions have been made and that "hatchery reviews" are ongoing.

Amid the questions and without confirmation from the federal agency, last week The Booth Society, Inc., a nonprofit friends group of D.C. Booth NFH, released a statement claiming a source in Washington D.C. confirmed off the record that the hatchery will be shuttered Oct. 1.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorate in Washington D.C. have emphasized and prioritized other programs over those of the National Fisheries Program. As a result, the agency has made the decision to permanently shut down multiple fish hatcheries nationwide, including the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery. This closure is expected to be effective October 1, 2013," read the news release issued by the group.

The announcement is not surprising considering the FWS's 15- year history of repeated moves toward shuttering mitigation hatcheries. The agency's mission has evolved from one that oversees wildlife and fish restoration to one that protects the growing number of endangered species and now oversees the expansion of the nation's "clean energy" revolution.

CONGRESSIONAL MANDATE

Congress established the National Fish Hatchery System in 1871 to replace fish lost from dam construction and to expand recreational fishing opportunities. The agency operates 70 hatcheries nationwide, including D.C. Booth, which houses the agency's archives, including scientific research spanning 140 years. While the FWS receives federal excise tax monies on fishing equipment to apportion to state fishery programs, the federal hatchery system is funded through Congressional appropriations.

These hatcheries support at least 3,500 jobs and have an annual economic impact of more than $325 million. In the early 1990s FWS upper management began planning for the use of its hatcheries to propagate endangered species like freshwater mussels, conveniently handing off the mitigation responsibilities to other federal agencies like the Corps of Engineers (COE) and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

In 2008 Congress directed the FWS to work with other federal partners to obtain full reimbursement for the mitigation projects.

While the COE has committed funding, negotiations continue with TVA, and no funding has been appropriated.

The TVA operates dams for hydropower and flood control along 47 reservoirs in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. The Corps operates dams nationwide for the same purpose.

In 2012 and again in 2013, the agency targeted nine mitigation hatcheries for closure, which led Tennessee's Sen. Lamar Alexander, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, to broker an agreement between the TVA and the FWS to continue stocking for another three years on waters impacted by TVA dams, or until an agreement could be reached on stakeholder funding, his office confirmed last week.

An Alexander aide said his office is also trying to obtain definitive answers from FWS about the planned National Fish Hatchery closings, several of which are located in Tennessee.

"I helped to work out an agreement with TVA and the FWS Service to keep the hatcheries producing trout for the next three years," Alexander said in a statement to The Outdoor Wire. "As part of its national review, the Fish and Wildlife Service should take this agreement into account, and I will continue to work to keep the hatcheries open."

In June, Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford introduced HR 2261, the "National Mitigation Fisheries Coordination Act of 2013," a measure simplified from last year's version, which requires the power companies to reimburse and to work with FWS to keep the two hatcheries in that state open. And the office of U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota confirmed it is working to prevent the closure of D.C. Booth.

Even while FWS officials denied knowledge of any forthcoming closures, current FWS Director, Dan Ashe, during an interview with Jim Shepherd and J.R. Absher of Outdoor Wire in January 2013, echoed what many anglers fear when he answered a specific question about the agency's plans for the hatcheries:

"Looking at the federal budgets, just like everyone else, we're having to shift priorities, The FWS at this point is skin, muscle and bone, there's nothing else left to cut. If I have to made a decision to support a hatchery that can produce a species that may go extinct as opposed to growing a species that is abundant and other people have the technological capacity to produce, that's not that tough a call. We've had this discussion in the Service for the past 15 years, but now it's being driven by physical realities."

In short, the revenue-generating federal mitigation hatchery system, long a beacon of government efficiency, appears to be a casualty of the new FWS ideology that has persisted when a Democratic president and Democratic-controlled Senate are seated in Washington.

Rick Nehrling, a 38-year veteran of the FWS, with 19 years overseeing southeastern U.S. hatcheries, said in 2013: "Budget documents clearly show that Fisheries is the only resource program in the Service that the Directorate has proposed for budget reductions and closures in FY 2012 and FY 2013. The other five resource programs (National Wildlife Refuge System, Endangered Species, etc) have all had substantial budget increases during the same time period."

Despite the protests from hatchery proponents, upper management of the agency appears determined to make the closures occur, or to shift the mitigation responsibility for these hatcheries over to other federal agencies. One thing is for certain: the sudden closure of these facilities could have an immediate impact on selected recreational fisheries in the U.S. and an economic one on the communities in which they currently operate.

- Etta Pettijohn

 

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