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Fish-Stocking Rules Affect Fish Farmers

US - Aquaculture producers say proposed state regulatory changes aimed at minimising environmental impacts from fish stocking activities could have paralysing effects on their businesses and the lakes and ponds where they plant fish.

The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), in a draft environmental impact report released this fall, proposed new rules that would impose higher-level inspections and certification requirements on all aquaculture farms that stock fish in the state's public or private waters.

Under the proposal, landowners who want to stock fish in their private lakes and ponds must also obtain a permit that subjects their property to inspections, such as for the presence of sensitive species, and a health certificate from the farm conducting the stocking. Private stocking permits are currently not required in 37 counties.

"The scope of these proposed changes in regulations is really huge," said Michael McCoy, executive director of the California Aquaculture Association told California Farm Bureau Federation.

In a letter reacting to the department's recommendations, the association called language in the report "flawed, confusing and/or ambiguous."

Mr McCoy said implementation of DFG draft regulations would not only deliver an economic blow to the state's aquaculture producers but also to their clients, which include owners of farm and ranch ponds, duck and other outdoor sport club lakes, fee fishing lakes, as well as operators of mosquito abatement programmes, public reservoirs and municipal lakes.

For fish farms, the new rules would mean yearly inspections to certify that their stocks are free of disease and invasive species, a concept that producers contend is "a hypothetical condition that does not exist."

"All living organisms carry some disease in their populations," Mr McCoy said. "We think that the definitions make it really hard to imagine how we can stock public waters."

The costs of conducting these analyses also are potentially large, easily exceeding several thousand dollars annually for large facilities that raise multiple species, he added. This financial burden would cripple aquaculture businesses and destroy their profitability, he said.

Landowners who want to stock fish in their private lakes and ponds also will incur additional expenses. With the proposed permitting requirements, Mr McCoy said producers fear their clients would try to avoid the regulatory burdens and costs and abandon their fish stocking efforts or acquire fish from illegitimate sources. The latter could have detrimental environmental effects, such as transfer of disease and introduction of invasive species, problems DFG is trying to mitigate in the first place, he added.

He said he thinks the new rules would be "really hard on both stockers and the people who are trying to receive the fish."

Mr McCoy said many operators of private lakes and fishing programmes, such as the Boy Scouts, have already cancelled orders and redirected funds to other programmes since DFG placed a moratorium on new stocking permits last December.

The state's hatchery and fish stocking programme came under attack in 2006, when two environmental groups sued DFG over potential effects of its fish stocking activities on protected species such as the tiger salamander, red-legged frog, yellow-legged frog and other wildlife populations.

Although the state has been operating hatcheries for more than 100 years, DFG had not conducted an environmental review of the effects of that programme. As a result of the court ruling, DFG was ordered to complete the evaluation, a draft of which has been circulating for comment since September.

It is unclear what the total economic impact of the new DFG rules would be, said Tony Vaught, owner of Professional Aquaculture Services in Chico, but he said he expects "all aquaculture in California will be affected, some more so than others, especially small farms and ranches that can't afford to go through all the steps that are required to get the certifications."

Don Crain, a Tehama County aquaculture producer, said the proposed rules would have far-reaching implications for fisheries such as his, which sells fish as food and for recreational purposes. He said he's afraid private operations would simply forgo his services if they need to be permitted.

"We're going to be losing that avenue to stock your average farm pond," said Mr Crain, who currently stocks fish for the DFG stocking programme as well as other private ponds in the Bay Area.

Mr Vaught said producers already operate under strict protocols to prevent the spread of disease and invasive species and are troubled by the extent of proposed regulation for private fish farms and their clients.

But Jim Starr, a fisheries biologist with DFG who is overseeing the development of the environmental impact report, said private stocking activities were included in the environmental assessment because the department identified potential impacts associated with the 37 counties that are currently exempt from needing private stocking permits.

"That is a major impact that we have no control over, yet it's something that is within our grasp to control," he said. "We have no idea what those impacts are. However, we do know that listed species or species of special concern are present in those areas and they potentially could be impacted by the stocking of fish."

He said the proposed changes would bring all areas of the state in line, so that everybody who stocks fish needs to have a private stocking permit, regardless of whether the private pond or lake spills into public waters.

"Right now we have no idea what level of stocking goes on in the counties of California where there's no private stocking permit required," said Mr Starr. "And there's no way for us to find out."

Specifically, the department is "trying to get a handle on" the stocking of other hatchery-raised fish such as trout, bass and catfish, Mr Starr said. Applications for private stocking permits would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, if stocking takes place in an urban backyard pond, there's probably little to no impact on special-status species vs. if the property is in red-legged frog habitat, he said.

But Mr Vaught said with the way the DFG environmental document is written now, "there's no reason to think" that the proposed rules do not apply "to every wet spot in California."

Mr McCoy said what his association would like to see happen is for DFG to "clean up" some of its definitions in the environmental impact report, specifically terms such as "disease and parasite free." Another suggestion is for the state to regulate its own stocking recipients in its own waters, rather than every private recipient in the state.

Mr Vaught said current regulations have worked fine for many years and he doesn't see any reason to change the process.

"We don't mind some reasonable regulation," Mr McCoy said. "We just don't see why we need these extra layers of regulations."

The department is now reviewing public comments on its draft report and said it expects to have a finalised version in January. For more information, see www.dfg.ca.gov.

the Fish Site Editor

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