Legislature needs to recognize value of fish, game programs and fund them accordingly
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Sunday, 19 June 2005 16:29

It may be time for Michigan fishermen to start thinking about a bake sale.? The Department of Natural Resources' budget is in such sad shape that anglers are going to begin feeling the pain. It's like that oil filter commercial -- pay me now or pay me later. Only it's not going to be all that much later.

In an effort to shave some $8 million from its budget over the next two years, the DNR has announced a series of cuts to game and fish programs. The most immediate impacts will be in fisheries.

The most dramatic cut is a 60 percent reduction in the number of coho salmon stocked in Lake Michigan. By eliminating production of about a million coho smolts, the agency will save $150,000 a year. But by not planting those fish in southern Michigan streams -- virtually the entire coho production will be stocked in the Platte River, where the DNR collects brood stock -- fisheries officials are gambling with the significant early spring fishery in southern Lake Michigan.

That fisheries officials would identify the coho program as a place to cut is a no-brainer. Unlike chinooks, which are grown to fingerling size and released, coho remain in the hatchery system for a year and a half. They are significantly more expensive to produce and probably generate less return to Michigan anglers than other species as they tend to migrate clockwise around the lake and get picked off in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

But at the same time, back when the chinook fishery was going gangbusters and anglers wondered whether the coho program was worthwhile, fisheries officials insisted on keeping it alive. And when bacterial kidney disease hit the chinooks hard, fisheries managers heralded the decision to maintain a diverse fishery.

Apparently, we can no longer afford that insurance policy.

Obviously, the coho program isn't the only cut identified by fisheries officials. The Atlantic salmon program, which provides a unique fishery in Torch Lake, is on the chopping block, though the savings are modest ($20,000 a year). Potentially more bothersome is the elimination of fin-clipping hatchery steelhead; many anglers creel only fin-clipped fish and release unclipped fish to allow them to spawn. Without the fin clips (which cost $25,000 a year), that effort's lost.

Similarly, the fish division has decided to cut some habitat improvement projects and postpone others. You can already find plenty of anglers who believe habitat has been given short shrift. That situation will only get worse.

Who's fault is it? Well, there's plenty of blame to go around, beginning with former DNR director K.L. Cool, who left enough money on the table -- by refusing to raise license fees by $1 when allowed to by the Legislature -- to fully fund these programs. And current leadership, who saw this coming, has been tardy is moving toward revenue enhancement.

But ultimately, this is the Legislature's responsibility and its refusal to fund fish and wildlife programs is to blame. Fish and wildlife programs, which generate billions of dollars in economic activity in this state, are allowed to sink or swim on their own.

When an industry hints at bringing a factory here, our elected leaders break their necks with tax incentives and sweetheart real estate deals in the name of economic development.

But when an existing industry -- recreational fishing -- that already produces billions of dollars of economic activity needs a helping hand over a rough patch, leadership is missing in action.

Where's the equity?

Ultimately, there will be a fee increase and some of the cuts will be restored. But long term, fish and wildlife management programs are in a downward spiral that won't end until elected officials recognize their value and fund them accordingly.

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