The slogan, "Fishing's great in New York state," may soon be a memory if current trends that plague the operation of the state's fish propagation programs are not rectified quickly and restored to past performances.
There are several factors at work here that, when combined, have the possibility of destroying a high-quality program that feeds a multimillion-dollar sport-fishing economic engine in New York state. After all, the sportsmen and -women of this state have seen a substantial raise in their license fees, and we were told that the fishery would not be compromised. The multiplier effect of fishing dollars spent in this state is staggering and is vital to the economy. So what's the problem?
The economic crisis facing the state has highly impacted the fish-propagation unit in terms of its duties of raising and transporting fish. Staffing cuts in state Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries have severely impacted production. A reduced staff cannot sustain the same volume of fish production. The backfilling of positions that was promised has not occurred. Basically, fewer personal have not been able to provide enough labor to keep up the same production rate of raising the numbers of fish we have had in the past.
A boy waits eagerly with his fishing pole as a volunteer gets ready to dump state-raised trout into the West Branch of the AuSable River in May 2008.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
The hatchery stocking truck fleet has not been repaired and serviced as it should be, creating breakdowns and delays. Fewer drivers are working longer hours with more equipment problems, and they have difficulties finding nearby fuel because of DEC's recent policies of not maintaining its own fuel depots anymore, causing them to spend more dollars to get fuel.
Old computers are inefficient and causing communication problems. As a result, schedules of stocking deliveries are not reported. As a result of stocking trucks breaking down and communication failures, staff are not able to report the cancellations and delays.
This has caused problems with sportsmen's volunteer groups that are waiting to help with stocking and are not informed of cancellations and rescheduling. Several sportsmen's groups have waited for hours and seen no trucks show up as scheduled. As a result, public relations are not at an all-time high.
Another major problem is stocking by air. DEC regions 5 and 6 are the premier location of several species of cold-water fish: brown, rainbow, lake and brook trout (several native subspecies), and, of course, various species of salmon. Many of these require stocking by helicopter.
For several years, DEC had its own pilots who were well trained by the military. They had a lot of experience and assisted not only in fish stocking and pond reclamation but also in delivering supplies and building materials, completing research missions and rescue operations. About 10 years ago, to combine services, the helicopter was turned over to the New York State Police, who added to their fleet and were to continue these services as well as do police work and other state missions - for example, transporting the governor over disaster areas, etc.
Over the past few years the DEC pilots assisted the state police pilots with some training, but now they have retired. The state police have not been training pilots for the DEC type of work. State police have been transferred from patrol car to helicopter pilots with very little, if any, training. It is one thing to fly over the Northway or the Thruway to look for speeders, another to fly missions over the woods. There are a lot of trees at different heights and mountains, updrafts and downdrafts, hovering over rivers, lakes and ponds. Pilots also need to gain knowledge about directions by GPS. They need to be able to determine which lake is the correct lake what species of fish is to be stocked in it.
Because of the lack of these skills, we have had a lot of wrong fish stocked in the wrong ponds! Maneuvering over a variety of terrains takes special skills, and inexperienced pilots are reluctant to take on the duties that are required. Let me give a couple of true examples.
Last year during a winter pond-reclaiming project that required lime to be spread on a pond to change the PH, a state police helicopter landed on the liming bucket. As a result, the state police indicated that they would not do pond liming again!
A few months ago, the state police were in the Moose River area, stocking fish, and clipped a tree branch. As a result, the state police indicated that they would not stock rivers anymore. This resulted in no stocking of 17 miles of the Hudson River! (The Adirondack guides aren't going to be catching the big ones there this year!)
When surveying a remote pond in the days of DEC pilots, it was commonplace to take the back doors of a copter and lash in a canoe sideways, as well as the gear needed to get the job done. One of our newer pilots stated, "You could not fly that way!"
This writer also believes that some state police pilots don't look at DEC work as an important part of their job. They would rather be looking for marijuana fields or flying the governor than stocking fish. However, it has been agreed that this is part of their duties, and it needs to be just as an important part of their duty as any other assignment.
The Life Flight pilots go everywhere and do everything (because they have training) and often assist state police pilots.
The service that state police pilots provide is vital to the North Country economy and to the welfare of the citizens of this state. It is not just fish stocking but looking for lost people, making environmental impact studies, reclamations, wildlife studies and a host of other missions. These pilots deserve and need the proper training to do their job skillfully and safely. Without their participation fully in this program, we will loose a great resource. When fishermen don't find fish, they won't come back, and the dollars generated by them won't be there to stimulate the economy. The New York State Police and the DEC need to solve these issues by working together for the benefit of all parties. "Fishing can continue to be great in New York state" if we can solve these issues.
Robert E. Brown lives in Saranac Lake and is executive program director of the New York State Conservation Council.