This article is the last in the year-long series of articles on major topics of concern in the Commission's theme, "Conserve 2000." This article explains the Commission's resource protection efforts.
Conserve 2000: Resource First
by Carl Richardson
If you follow Commission programs closely, you've likely seen the phrase and logo for "Resource First." As the Commission approached the 21st century, you might also have noticed another phrase and logo: "Conserve 2000." The concepts captured by these slogans are very simple. No water, then no fish. No fish, then no fishing. No water, then no boating. No wetlands, then no amphibians, either. These simple ideas guide the Fish & Boat Commission in carrying out its mission.
photo-PFBC file photo
Stream habitat improvements are built to improve sections of streams that are channelized or sent through culverts. They are also built to enhance habitat and fishing opportunities.
The natural resources of the Commonwealth have led to its success in world markets in the last 200 years. Natural resource-based recreation has been an equally important part of our culture. The last five issues of PA Angler & Boater have featured a series of articles on important resource issues of the last century and their legacy for the future. Those issues included threatened and endangered fishes, amphibians and reptiles, recreational access, migratory fishes, and fish habitat. The articles also focused on Commission efforts to address these challenges.
These articles also illustrated how issues on a global and regional scale could affect your fishing and boating. Global, regional and local demands for natural resources here in Pennsylvania do have an effect on our fishing and boating opportunities. Because these two activities are the main focus of the Commission, we take the idea of "Resource First" very seriously, especially when it comes to resource protection.
Protecting a resource typically takes one of two forms-preventive or punitive. We try to prevent activities that may affect the resource before they can harm the resource. If activities do result in harm to the resource, then we penalize those at fault.
Fishing and boating regulations are the most obvious resource protection efforts and those with which you are most likely familiar.
Another way the Commission protects the resource, although indirectly, includes conducting research aimed at learning more about the resource and those who depend on it. The Commission applies this information when reviewing activities that may affect the resource. The Wild Resource Conservation Fund pays for much of this important research.
Fishing and boating regulations are the most obvious resource protection efforts and those with which you are most likely familiar. The resource "belongs" to all of us, but we can't all use it as each of us sees fit. That is, if I catch and keep all the trout in a section of stream, then you can't enjoy the fishing there.
That's why the Commission sets regulations that place limits on sizes, possession, seasons and methods. Pennsylvania law authorizes the Commission to set regulations and penalties. Title 30, also known as the Fish and Boat Code, outlines the regulatory authority of the Fish & Boat Commission.
The formulation of the regulations is based on the resource and the opportunities it's capable of producing. Commission area fisheries managers conduct extensive surveys of fish populations and habitat. Regulations are then set based on the characteristics of that resource. For example, Penns Creek in Centre and Mifflin counties has enough natural reproduction of trout on some sections that it doesn't need to be stocked-so it isn't. The season for keeping fish closes on wild trout streams on Labor Day so that wild trout are afforded additional protection. In addition, these sections have the capability to grow trophy-sized trout (14 inches or larger). So regulations setting higher minimum sizes and lower creel limits are put in place.
These regulations prevent the resource, like a creek, pond or lake, from being overfished. Anglers who don't follow those regulations and who are caught by the Commission's waterways conservation officers (WCOs) are penalized.
This approach is similar to the one the Commission takes when dealing with non-fishing and boating activities, like the construction of a mall, highway or sewage treatment plant.
Beech Creek, Clinton and Centre counties. Commission Division of Environmental Services personnel examines the chilling effects of "yellow boy"chemicals leached from acid mine drainage that stain the stream rocks and kill aquatic life. Just as an angler gets a citation and a fine when violating fishing regulations, so do polluters. Fines are based on the damage done to the resource.
Pennsylvania was one of the first states to pass strict environmental protection legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. These regulations require that permits be acquired before streams can be crossed or changed, or before anything is discharged into the water or air. The permit application and review process allows for the consideration of activities that might harm the resource. Occasionally, the activity may be so harmful that it is not acceptable and the permit is denied. Sometimes, as a condition of the permit, the original plans are changed to minimize or eliminate harmful activities.
Each year, the Commission's Division of Environmental Services, with the assistance of WCOs, reviews thousands of permit applications. We review the proposed activity and consider its potential effect on fishing and boating resources. This review often requires site visits and the collection and review of data on fish populations, habitat and recreational use.
Cedar Run, Tioga County. The formulation of regulations is based on the resource and the opportunities it's capable of producing. Commission biologists conduct extensive surveys of fish populations and habitat. Regulations are then based on the characteristics of that resource.
The Commission's authority to conduct these reviews and provide regulatory direction varies and is complex. On most projects, the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) consults the Commission. DEP relies on our expertise and knowledge of aquatic resources to make determinations about the effects of activities. With our input, DEP either denies or approves the permit. We may also recommend that the activity be changed to minimize the effect and that the change should be a condition of the permit.
Once a permit is approved, the public is allowed a 30-day period to comment on the permit and its conditions. At this point, the Commission may again provide feedback to DEP. This process applies to most of the permits reviewed by the Commission.
One of the best examples of how this process is put into practice occurred several years ago in Schuylkill County. The Mahanoy Township Authority (MTA) applied to DEP for increased water withdrawals from dams and intakes on several different streams. As you know, water is a limited resource, but demand is increasing. Our review of these streams showed good populations of wild brook trout. The Commission expressed concern about the effects these additional withdrawals would have on the populations. Often in these instances we recommend that water be released to maintain minimum flows in streams to protect aquatic life-these releases are referred to as "conservation releases."
In this case, the permit was issued without conservation releases, and we appealed to the Environmental Hearing Board. Through negotiations, MTA agreed to conservation releases, which were made a condition of the permit. So the permit was structured to provide the greatest flows through conservation releases on the streams with the best wild trout populations. There are countless similar examples, unknown to most anglers and boaters, in which the Commission negotiated with the permit applicant to protect aquatic life and recreational opportunities.
On projects such as highways, where federal funds are used, federal laws require consultation with state fish and wildlife agencies. The authority for the Commission's review comes from the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in the late 1960s. The Commission has staff, supported by funds from PennDOT, dedicated to reviewing highway projects. Each year, this staff reviews permit applications and designs for hundreds of stream crossing structures and channel relocations. If you cross one of our many waterways on a newly constructed bridge or highway, our biologists had a hand in that project.
Not just fish-recreation opportunities, too
There are two great examples where our cooperation with PennDOT and the review of projects paid off in greater recreational opportunities. PennDOT was constructing a replacement bridge over the West Branch Susquehanna River at Hyner, Clinton County. The old bridge was a popular spot for launching and retrieving canoes. PennDOT, using our input, located the new bridge in a different spot and constructed a canoe access at the old site.
Another good example is found along Route 322 in the Juniata River Narrows, near Lewistown. Construction of a wider, limited-access highway in that section will eliminate popular pulloff spots for anglers and paddlers. With our input, PennDOT will construct an access area off the new limited-access highway. Commission efforts and cooperation with PennDOT will ensure that anglers and boaters have access to the resource.
Just as an angler gets a citation and a fine when violating fishing regulations, so do polluters. Fines are based on the damage done to the resource. Waterways conservation officers and their supervisors investigated some 477 cases of pollution/stream disturbances in 1999. Some of those cases are still pending, but the Commission collected more than $300,000 in fines in 1999. The Commission's authority to fine polluters comes from the Fish and Boat Code's Chapter 25. The funds collected through the fines go back to the Commission and are used to support Commission programs.
Many cases prosecuted by the Commission under Chapter 25 are small, isolated events. However, some have occurred over many years and involve many state and federal agencies-and lots of money. In the late 1980s, Pennzoil settled a pollution case with the federal Department of Justice by paying $1.15 million. The case resulted from the long-term discharge of brine from oil wells into streams in McKean County. Brine is a watery mixture of chemicals, including salts, which is a byproduct of the oil extraction process. It has a devastating effect on aquatic life and the habitat that supports life.
The Commission took $150,000 it received in that settlement and provided grants to local Trout Unlimited chapters for habitat improvement work. The improvements lessen the effect of the loss of life and habitat.
Fines for the Ashland Oil spill on the Monongahela River totaled $1.75 million. The Commission created extensive habitat maps of the Three Rivers region using $1 million from the legal settlement. Side-scan sonar was used to characterize the suitability of different habitat for various river fish species. The maps can help us better understand this ecosystem, and prevent future projects from affecting fish populations. The Commission also used $350,000 of the fines to characterize recreational use in the Three Rivers area. Little data was available before on recreational use of major Pennsylvania rivers.
Mitigation is also a technique used on highway projects, especially where wetlands are affected. New wetlands are constructed to replace those lost in construction at a rate of 1:1 to 2:1. That is, for every acre lost, up to two acres are built. Stream habitat improvements are also constructed to mitigate sections of streams that are channelized or sent through culverts.
The more obvious signs of Commission efforts to provide fishing and boating opportunities may be found in stocking fish or building access areas. However, as you can see, behind-the-scenes activities can pay big dividends in protecting opportunities, by protecting the resource. "Resource First" is more than a catchy slogan-it's a way of doing business.
Building on the themes of this year's Conserve 2000 articles, in 2001, PA Angler & Boater will include articles focusing on habitat. Articles will detail the importance of specific habitats and efforts by others to enhance and conserve habitats.
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November/December 2000 Angler & Boater
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