By Ching Lee

Aquaculture farmers who stock fish in the state’s public or private waters will be able to continue those activities under the same regulatory requirements.

The California Fish and Game Commission last week rejected the state Department of Fish and Game’s proposed new rules that would have required landowners who stock fish in their private lakes and ponds to obtain a permit.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to take no action on the new regulations after hearing presentations by DFG staff on the stocking issue, a private consulting firm’s economic analysis of the proposed rules and testimony from more than two dozen opponents of the rule changes, including fish farmers, lake operators, fishing enthusiasts and businesses that serve fishing and recreation.

Most of the public speakers testified against implementation of DFG’s proposed rules, which they say would drive aquaculture farms, private hatcheries and fishing lakes and ponds out of business due to the regulatory burdens and costs to comply. This would in turn threaten many of the businesses and jobs that depend on recreational fishing as a major source of economic activity, opponents say.

In her economic analysis prepared for the California Association for Recreational Fishing, Marie Campbell of Sapphos Environmental Inc. testified that costs to complete biological surveys required by the new protocols could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps more than $100,000 for some lakes, depending on their location and the species in the area.

Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau Federation, testified that the proposed mandates would not only affect aquaculture farmers but the state’s farmers and ranchers, many of whom stock fish on their properties. She said the requirement to obtain stocking permits and the costs associated with that process would likely lead farms and ranches not to stock their private ponds, which would then hurt the aquaculture farms that supply the fish.

DFG proposed the new rules as a result of a 2006 lawsuit by environmental groups against the state’s fish hatcheries. The court ordered DFG to complete an environmental review of the potential effects of its fish stocking program on protected species. But rather than dealing only with the state’s hatcheries, the department went beyond the court ruling by also focusing on private stocking operations, said Marko Mlikotin, executive director of CARF.

In the end, the four commissioners agreed that they were not comfortable adopting the department’s proposed regulations.

“I am not convinced, and I haven’t heard, that there’s any compelling need to do this,” said Commissioner Daniel Richards. “This is not to say we’re not interested in protecting resources or any legal mandates.”

Richards added that if the department feels compelled, “the door is open” for staff “to come back with something more appropriate.”

Cremers said Farm Bureau is “pleased the commission recognized the significant impact the regulations would have had on California’s fish farmers and on farmers and ranchers who want to stock fish in their ponds.”

“California’s aquaculture farmers provide fish to create the outstanding recreational opportunities for Californians,” she added. “Moving forward with these regulations would have been very harmful to California aquaculture.”

Craig Elliott, a catfish farmer who also operates three fishing lakes in Southern California, said what DFG proposed was “a solution to problems that really don’t exist,” because the state’s fish hatcheries and landowners already comply with some of the nation’s strictest environmental standards.

Meanwhile, CARF is moving forward with its lawsuit filed last year against DFG “to ensure that these regulations don’t return in some form,” Mlikotin said. The lawsuit contends that regulations such as those proposed by DFG require the approval of the state Legislature and the governor and cannot be adopted via an environmental impact report, he said.

“If we’re successful in court, then these regulations essentially will go away,” said Mlikotin. “And if there’s any political support for these regulations, it’ll have to go through the proper process, which is the state Legislature.”

He said the lawsuit is expected to be heard sometime next spring.

(Ching Lee is assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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