State targets Salisbury fish hatchery for closure
SALISBURY — Faced with a $500,000 budget shortfall in fiscal year 2020, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife (VDFW) is recommending closing the Salisbury Fish Culture Station at 646 Lake Dunmore Road, a facility that employs four full-time workers, attracts more than 6,000 visitors each year, and plays a key role in the state’s formidable trout breeding program that attracts anglers and fuels the state economy.
“It’s a difficult position to be in, with the mission we are committed to and the colleagues we are committed to, but the fact of the matter is that state government has to meet its expenses to its revenues,” Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said. “And as it is for everyone else, expenses go up.”
Porter and his colleagues estimate the state could save approximately $250,000 in fiscal year 2020 by closing the Salisbury hatchery, now open daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The department is pitching additional $250,000 in cuts and operational changes to wipe out the potential $500,000 budget shortfall, according to Porter.
But the Salisbury hatchery — one of five in the state — is not only being targeted due to its operating expenses. The facility would need at least $12 million in upgrades to make it compliant with upcoming new federal water quality rules, according to Porter. So VDFW officials propose decommissioning the Salisbury hatchery and instead invest around $6 million to modernize the Roxbury hatchery.
The Salisbury facility’s functions would be transferred to Roxbury and the other state hatcheries in Bennington, Grand Isle and Newark, officials said.
The new federal water quality rules speak to reducing waste emanating from the hatcheries, according to Porter. Needed upgrades would include installation of modern fish tanks to supplant the current raceways, and creation of a de facto miniature wastewater treatment system, he said. And that’s just what VDFW plans to do at its Roxbury hatchery, which is essentially being rebuilt, according to Porter.
Roxbury’s hatchery flooded during Tropical Storm Irene and has remained largely off-line since that massive storm in August 2011.
Porter stressed the decommissioning of the Salisbury hatchery — if OK’d by the Legislature as part of the state’s fiscal year 2020 general fund budget — would be a multi-year process that would dovetail with the new water rules taking effect.
“Knowing (the new federal rules) are out there, knowing we have this operating fund shortfall, that’s why we (chose Salisbury),” Porter said.
It’s a decision that VDFW officials said they didn’t take lightly, given the Salisbury hatchery’s history and key role it plays in fortifying the state’s trout population. Those fish are ultimately introduced into multiple waterways and attract anglers from throughout the country.
The Salisbury hatchery was established in 1931, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It sits on a 65-acre, state-owned parcel and attracted 6,600 visitors during fiscal year 2018.
It’s the most visited of the state’s five fish culture stations.
“A decommissioning of the Salisbury Fish Culture Station would mean the loss of a key tourist destination and public access to a critical piece of Vermont’s fish culture history,” reads a Jan. 30 Fish and Wildlife memo outlining the pros and cons of a closure plan.
The Salisbury facility serves as the state’s only “broodstock station,” producing approximately 5 million trout eggs annually for other state and federal fish hatcheries, according to the VDFW website. It raises and spawns five different trout species for Vermont’s lakes and streams. Those species include brook, brown, rainbow, steelhead and lake trout.
Additionally, the Salisbury hatchery has the ability to use a light controlled room to stimulate fish to produce eggs earlier. By providing eggs to the other hatcheries earlier in the year, the young hatched fish have more time to grow in the controlled setting.
VDFW officials aren’t yet sure what it would cost to decommission the facility.
IMPACT ON FISH STOCKING
While closing it would save the state some money, officials concede the move would temporarily set back the state’s fish breeding program. Among other things, it would require the state to move broodstock to other state fish hatcheries to provide fish eggs.
“Given the fact that Salisbury Fish Culture Station has a prevalence of having the fish disease furunculosis, the only way a full swap of broodstock could occur would be with the distribution of eggs to be grown out for broodstock for other hatcheries,” the VDFW’s Jan. 30 memo states.
This could result in the VDFW having to forgo stocking fish statewide until the new broodstock grow to the point where they reach sexual maturity and can produce eggs for statewide stocking. This would result in a loss of catchable-sized trout varieties during two or three years in the mid- to late 2020s, according to the VDFW memo.
Closing the Salisbury station could also trigger the need to buy fish eggs from out-of-state sources, according to state officials. These eggs would not be of the same genetic strain and “would have the potential to significantly impact the wild trout population in Vermont,” reads the VDFW memo. “This would be an environmentally risky and financially costly endeavor and result in the discontinuation of ‘strain critical’ stockings … as well as other concerns with availability, biosecurity, etc.”
If and when all Salisbury programs are phased out, the state would try to find new jobs for the affected employees. The VDFW’s broodstock program is likely to need at least one of the four full-timers, officials said.
“We’re still working through how to minimize the impact of the closure both to our fish stock and to employees,” Porter said. “If there were to be any (layoffs), we would of course work within the (state employees’) labor contract.”
AL MOOREHOUSE, LEFT, and Brett Lowry process a mass of fish eggs produced and collected at the Salisbury fish hatchery on Tuesday. Technicians carefully harvest 5 million trout eggs a year and raise as many as possible there and at four other state hatcheries for release into Vermont lakes and streams for sport fisherman.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
That contract, among other things, gives laid off state workers top consideration for any future job openings within state government for which they are qualified.
Porter explained that personnel costs are really what is driving his decision, not the facility itself.
“The (hatchery) building doesn’t make the savings,” he said.
Brett Lowry is supervisor of the Salisbury hatchery, a post he has held for the past two years. His three colleagues have all worked at the facility for more than 20 years. One of them, Mike Ellis, has been there for 37 years.
“The job has been great; I really enjoy it,” Lowry said.
He was diplomatic in voicing his thoughts about the future of his place of work.
“Right now, we’re crossing our fingers, hoping the governor’s office and the Legislature can come to a good agreement that would benefit the most people possible,” Lowry said.
Salisbury selectboard Chairman Tom Scanlon was surprised to learn the local hatchery was on the chopping block. He noted the state recently invested in solar power for the station.
“It’s a big tourism facility,” Scanlon said. “A lot of people stop there during the summer to feed the fish.”
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, represents the House district that includes Salisbury. He’s concerned about the impact that closure of the Salisbury hatchery could have on workers and the local economy.
“This proposal… requires very close examination,” he said. “Not only is the hatchery a very unique feature of Salisbury that employs four full-time people, it’s also an important part of the state’s fisheries program.”
That said, Conlon knows that retaining the hatchery might be a tough sell in a problematic financial climate.
“It’s certainly a difficult challenge,” he said.
Fish & Wildlife officials don’t yet have a long-term plan for the Salisbury hatchery property if it’s decommissioned.
“We’re going to put it in stasis in a way that it won’t be damaged,” Porter said of the short-term plan. “Obviously, it’s a state asset. We’ll keep the heat on at a minimal level and keep the water flowing enough so it doesn’t get damaged.”
Porter acknowledged the proposal to close the facility has been unpopular in some circles.
“We’ve had significant concern expressed, both by people in the community and by anglers,” Porter said. “I’m getting many emails and some calls about it. I have had several legislators come up to me and express concern and even frustration with this approach.”
An unpopular plan, but one steeped in financial realities, officials said.
“This is the approach we felt was needed to match those revenues and expenses,” Porter said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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