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Fish Under Fire — Federal Plan Threatens to Abandon Mitigation Hatchery Funding

Wading a mountain stream in East Tennessee, a lazy river in the mid-state or a backwater to the west, it’s easy to think that these waterways are the same as they’ve been for centuries. But that’s rarely the case. Through the early 20th century, Tennesseans relied on a primitive system of levees and private dams to control water in their communities, the tiny towns and growing cities that represented clusters of population amongst millions of acres of native land. A lot has changed since then.

A string of disastrous floods of the 1910s and ‘20s convinced federal and state authorities that something had to be done to protect the people’s assets, private and public, and in the decades since an entire network of locks and dams have been created across the nation to control water and generate power. In our state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the Cumberland River system, and the Tennessee Valley Authority built and maintains the dams on the Tennessee River.

The downside was that the habitat downstream were forever altered, to the point where native sport fish could no longer thrive – the priority for flood management and power production trumped the needs of the wildlife on the scale of national interest. But it was the citizen’s wildlife and habitat that was being destroyed, and the burden for mitigating that impact led to the creation of federal trout stocking programs that have become economic engines that deliver returns rarely seen in a government program.

“We’ve had people tell us that some of our east Tennessee rivers rival the world-famous trout streams out west, and that’s the result of stocking and management,” says Bobby Wilson, chief of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “If our trout stocking program were to go away, the economic loss would be enormous.”

And while fisheries experts hope that’s not the case, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. A “handshake” deal struck decades ago to make permanent reparations for the impact of the dams on fishing opportunities has slowly gone from bona fide Congressional appropriations to program reimbursements for hatcheries, stocking and management, largely covered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Corps of Engineers, and the TWRA. A report leaked last year indicates that USFWS Director Dan Ash plans to do away with the mitigation program funding altogether, shifting the burden squarely onto the Corps and the TVA.

Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Mike Butler, a biologist by training, has studied the program extensively, serving on various stakeholder committees that have witnessed the storm brewing. This is the first time they’ve seen a plan on paper that confirms their suspicions – the federal agency responsible for managing the nation’s wildlife is not interested in funding fisheries mitigation programs moving forward.

“We’ve seen a fundamental change in conservation funding over the years, and it’s accelerated rapidly over the last decade,” Butler says. “These federal dam projects had a negative impact on the people’s resource, and that impact is perpetual. The deal was that the mitigation would be in perpetuity, and we’ve built these economies—the bait shops, the restaurants and hotels—that are generating incredible returns on a relatively small amount of money spent on the programs. But because the water fluctuates so much and it’s so cold coming out of these dams but gets so hot during the summer, trout have to be stocked and managed.”

Butler says the USFWS touted these programs as a crowning achievement for decades, all the way through the Reagan administration in the 1980s. But as federal spending continued to soar out of control, Congress started looking for creative ways to cut funding. What was historically one appropriation to cover fisheries mitigation nationwide became a multi-front, ongoing battle for various programs that added complexity and politics to the deal.

“The bottom line is that the Fish & Wildlife Service is not legally obligated by specific enabling legislation to fund these programs, so now they’re trying to pass the buck because the current director has other priorities,” Butler says. “We don’t think that’s acceptable, ethically or fiscally, to Tennessee or to any of the other states across the Southeast. We believe they are obligated to mitigate the damage on an ongoing basis, because those dam structures made a permanent impact, and they will be there forever.”

Wilson says the mechanics behind the program that includes federal and state hatcheries that grow and distribute eggs and stocking-size fish are pretty straightforward. Two national fish hatcheries at Dale Hollow Lake in Celina and at Erwin provide fish for tailwaters across the Southeast, as well as educational opportunities for thousands of science students and the general public each year.

At Erwin, 13 million fish eggs are grown and distributed each year – to the Dale Hollow facility and to four cold-water state hatcheries in Tennessee to be grown to stocker fish, as well as to research centers and universities and even to tribal lands.

From Dale Hollow comes millions of rainbow, brown, lake and brook trout for mitigation stocking in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, along with a limited number of rainbows for non-mitigation purposes, such as TWRA’s winter stocking program.

Wilson says the state produces about two million fish per year itself, mostly catchable-size trout but some smaller and some much larger. Whereas the mitigation stocking efforts are primarily handled by the Dale Hollow staff, the state fisheries biologists collaborate closely with them, and sometimes do the stocking themselves when the logistics make sense.

TWRA’s mission is to ensure the recreational fishing opportunity exists, and that includes stocking trout in places where they won’t survive the year simply so people can catch and eat them.

“The winter stocking program, which runs roughly from January through May, depending on the location and habitat conditions, has been hugely popular,” he says. “You could be catching trout in a pond in Memphis or the Harpeth River in Nashville or a spring-fed creek in Waverly, and these are all relatively warm-water areas where the fish can only survive within a certain water temperature range. It’s designed to encourage people to fish, to teach their kids to fish, to take home fish to eat… it’s been a very successful program that essentially pays for itself through the state trout stamp.”

People who get hooked on trout fishing here might become more serious fishermen who frequent the areas where the trout can grow and thrive, as a result of the cold water from deep reservoirs pushed through the dam systems. Middle Tennessee anglers might head to the Caney Fork, whereas East Tennessee’s Watauga, South Holston and Clinch rivers have become known for offering the fly-fishing opportunity akin to something you might expect to find only in Montana or Wyoming.

All of these resources have serious dollars attached to them – studies have shown that the return on a single federal dollar spent could be as much as $100 to local economies. The program itself costs the federal government less than $43 million each year in Tennessee, $900,000 of which the USFWS is now trying to place onto the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) brokered a deal with TVA and the USFWS late last year to provide $2.7 million in short-term funding over three years, but the long-term problem is not going away. Butler says it’s about the principle, the threat and the plan for the future.

“After 20 years of a failed reimbursement system that never included TVA, the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to walk away. The Southeast stakeholders have said loud and clear that we don’t believe that’s the right thing to do, and we’re grateful to Sen. Alexander and TVA for being willing to find a solution,” Butler said. “We have to either convince Director Ashe to reverse his approach, or to pass legislation that codifies this mitigation responsibility once and for all.”

Wilson says the state is hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

“We assume the hatcheries will continue to operate under some funding model, but this is most certainly a federal responsibility,” he says. “We don’t have the resources to cover it, and if it went away, the result would be a cut to the total trout stocking program of more than 50 percent, at minimum, of the number of fish stocked. In a few short years, the impact would be drastic. Over time, the fishing opportunities would be decreased exponentially.”

The budget process is happening now, and it’s not too late for public input to influence the decision-making in Washington. To make your voice heard on this important issue, contact USFWS Director Dan Ashe, or via twitter at @DirectorDanAshe.

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