KINGMAN - Ending the Willow Beach fish hatchery's rainbow trout program will wreak economic and environmental havoc, said politicians, business owners and anglers at a forum on Thursday.
"This is a severe economic impact to our entire area," said Lisa McCabe, president of the Bullhead Regional Economic Development Authority.
"The board and directors of BREDA have motioned to support the resolution before you today and urge you to take action to protect our local businesses, as well as tourism in our region."
She was talking about a position taken by the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, which hosted the forum. They're sending a letter and a resolution contesting the program's closure to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretary of Interior, as well as to legislative delegations for Arizona, Nevada and California.
Also, the board promised to communicate with other entities affected by the decision to cease raising trout, and continue to urge Fish and Wildlife to re-establish the trout program at the Willow Beach fish hatchery.
Downsized, then closed
Two large and unexpected rainbow trout die-offs last year led to the decision the stop the program, and officials worried about intake pipes clogged with sediment and vegetation that led to one of the fish kills.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service had already started downsizing the trout program, dropping from 250,000 to 125,000 annually in 2012, without letting anyone know, according to information presented at the forum.
Supervisors grilled Stewart Jacks, assistant regional director of the Southwest Region Fisheries Division for the Fish and Wildlife Service, about the performance of the pipes, how much it would cost to fix them, the crumbling condition of the tanks (which are called raceways) that hold the trout as they grow, and why little maintenance has been done to the facility.
And Supervisors Buster Johnson, District 3, and Gary Watson, District 1, asked how the lack of rainbow trout would affect endangered fish such as the razorback sucker and bony-tail chub in the river. Both men said millions of dollars spent to protect them so far will be wasted if they become the automatic replacement food of the bass inhabiting the water.
"That's an important point and a question that's been raised a lot," said Jacks. "It's a huge challenge. How it will be affected by the loss of rainbow trout in the system is unknown.
"It's still to be determined how much of an impact that change will be, but there will be some kind of an impact, for sure."
There's also an economic impact to consider, several speakers said.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates that $7.5 million to $12 million flow into the Willow Beach region annually as a result of the economic activity associated with the rainbow trout and striped bass anglers, said Penny Pew, district director for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.
More than 250,000 fishermen visit Arizona each year and spend more than $800 million on sporting goods and other tourist expenses, she added, citing an Arizona State University study.
"The arbitrary and misguided decision to discontinue this important program will have significant consequences for local communities along the river, as well as sportsmen and anglers throughout the nation," she said.
Terminating the annual production of 150,000 rainbow trout at the Willow Beach hatchery will stifle Arizona's multi-million-dollar fishing industry, said Pew, and cause considerable harm to small businesses, local governments and the residents who depend on the financial benefits associated with it. According to FWS estimates, she added, the national fish hatchery system returns $28 to the economy for every dollar spent.
McCabe, of the Bullhead economic authority, said she conducted a telephone survey of local businesses after hearing of the closing. The sporting goods manager of a local Walmart said sales of fishing licenses there are down 22 percent from last season, she said.
Representatives of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., also attended the meeting and voiced opposition to the closure.
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