Anglers fuel rally to save Salisbury fish hatchery

SALISBURY — State officials and leaders of several hunting and fishing organizations are exploring license fee increases among other possible financial remedies to avert a shutdown of the Salisbury Fish Culture Station. The facility supplies all the broodstock for rainbow, lake, brown and brook trout for stocking Vermont waterways.
As reported earlier this month by the Independent, Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed fiscal year 2020 state spending plan calls for closing the Salisbury hatchery at 646 Lake Dunmore Road as a way of cutting in half an estimated $500,000 shortfall in the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife operating budget.
The Salisbury hatchery is also on the chopping block because it needs at least $12 million in upgrades to comply with upcoming federal water quality rules, according to Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Will Porter. So Scott administration officials are proposing to decommission the Salisbury hatchery, transfer its function to Roxbury and the other state hatcheries in Bennington, Grand Isle and Newark, and invest around $6 million to modernize the Roxbury hatchery.
News of the potential closure of the Addison County hatchery prompted swift, vocal opposition from fishing enthusiasts, environmentalists and several Vermont lawmakers. The Salisbury facility employs four full-time workers, is the top tourist draw of all the state’s hatcheries, and plays a key role in Vermont’s successful trout breeding program that attracts anglers who help fuel the state economy.
Opposition to the proposed closure has made an impact on state officials, who’ve signaled a willingness to look at ways to salvage the Salisbury hatchery.
Scott met recently with representatives of state of hunting, trapping and fishing organizations, including Mike Covey, executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition. The coalition advocates for the interests of more than a dozen land use and recreation organizations in Vermont, including the Lake Champlain Walleye Association, the Maidstone Lake Association, Washington County Snowmobilers, and Mountain Chapter Ducks Unlimited.
Covey on Monday was still gathering support from fishing groups for a letter he will send to Gov. Scott urging that the Salisbury hatchery be kept open. He declined to share the letter until Scott had received it, but did offer some insights into its contents. The letter, according to Covey, conveys support for what he described as a “reasonable” increase of “a few dollars” in annual fishing and hunting license fees if that would result in a reprieve for the hatchery. 
“If Salisbury goes down, it’s going to reduce our (fish producing) capacity very significantly in the short term,” Covey said. “It’s going to take three to seven years to grow new broodstock.”
A Vermont resident now pays $26 for an annual fishing or hunting license, and $42 for a hunting/fishing combination license.
Non-residents pay $52 for an annual fishing license, $100 for an annual hunting license, and $138 for a combination license, according to the fee schedule posted on the VDFW website.
“At $26 a year, it currently costs us about 7 cents a day to fish,” Covey noted. “That’s a pretty good deal. I think a couple more cents a day, for the sake of maintaining our fishery, has value.”
All told, the state’s fishing stocking program generates an estimated $31.6 million each year for the Vermont economy, according to Covey.
“It’s a significant economic driver,” he said.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chairs the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee. That panel on Feb. 14 initially recommended raising in-state Fish & Wildlife license fees by 4 percent, and by 8 percent on out-of-state licenses, as a means of keeping the Salisbury fish hatchery open — at least until state officials can get a better handle on the true costs of the federally mandated water quality rules and when they need to be implemented.
“We looked at nearby states to make sure (the fee increase) would keep us competitive, and it does,” she said.
But the panel reworked its suggestion after being told an across-the-board increase might have a more negative impact on hunting programs that aren’t performing well.
“It captures such things as moose permits, which are going way down now,” Sheldon said of the increase.
So the House Natural Resources Committee is instead recommending a $2 increase for an individual fishing or hunting license, and a $5 bump for a combination fishing/hunting license.
If implemented, those fee hikes would raise revenues by an estimated $150,000, according to Porter. He said Fish & Wildlife is now seeking another $100,000 through the House Appropriations Committee to achieve $250,000 in savings.
Officials stressed, however, that reaching that $250,000 mark might only buy the Salisbury hatchery a few more years. There’s still the matter of the $12 million in facility upgrades needed to comply with federal water quality standards.
“I don’t think it’s likely that the Legislature or the administration would support that kind of an investment in the hatchery,” Porter added. “It took us many years to get to a point where we could rebuild Duxbury, which … is about half the cost.”
There is a chance — albeit slim — that Salisbury could meet the spirit of the federal water quality rules without a multi-million-dollar capital investment, according to Porter.
For example, he said the state could ask federal environmental authorities to allow the Salisbury hatchery to pipe its discharge somewhere else, or change the geographic location at which discharge from the facility is measured.
At the very least, anglers want to see the Salisbury location stay open until its broodstock responsibilities are farmed out to the state’s other hatcheries in a way that wouldn’t disrupt Vermont’s fish stocking program.
Covey is optimistic a compromise can be reached.
“This is an opening to a conversation that wasn’t available three weeks ago,” Covey said. “Three weeks ago, Salisbury was on the chopping block. Now we’ve got a great conversation and a dialogue going with the administration, and we’re confident we’re going to find a solution to the immediate fiscal year. That will provide us with an opportunity to continue discussion in the future.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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