Johnson City Press: TVA deal to keep fish hatching in Erwin

Posted on May 17, 2013

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander capped off what he described as “a week of good news for Tennessee fishermen” with the Friday announcement that the Tennessee Valley Authority is participating in an agreement with state and federal wildlife agencies that will allow the Erwin National Fish Hatchery to remain open for at least another three years.

   The hatchery, along with the state’s other national hatchery, the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery in Celina, has faced closure threats in recent years due to budget cuts.

   “That’s been, of course, of great concern to fishermen across the country and to those of us who know about the history of the fish hatchery in Erwin,” Alexander said during a Friday morning news conference held at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency headquarters in Nashville.

   Per the agreement, the TVA will provide more than $900,000 per year over the next three years to support federal fish hatchery operations that provide troutstocking programs in reservoirs and tailwaters of a dozen TVA dams in Tennessee and Georgia. The agreement was signed by the TVA, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the TWRA and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

   Alexander said other federal agencies that construct dams on waterways across the country, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, purchase fish from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate the loss of fish caused by construction. He said he has worked with the TVA for the past 1½ years to see if a similar agreement could be reached with the TVA.

   “Because the TVA’s dams on the Tennessee River system disturb the environment, it’s now going to be purchasing fish from the national fish hatcheries to replace the fish that were lost because of the building of dams years ago,” Alexander said.

   Alexander said wildlife agencies involved in the agreement announced Friday that without the TVA purchasing fish for mitigation, the Erwin and Dale Hollow hatcheries would have faced a substantial reduction or possible closure. Alexander said this would have been a “disaster” for the state’s 900,000 fishermen and anglers who visit the state.

   “TVA is voluntarily providing three years of stewardship funding for trout hatchery operations because the agencies involved understand the importance of stocked trout waters to recreation, tourism and local economies,” Joe Hoagland, TVA senior vice president of policy and oversight, said in a release.

   The Erwin National Fish Hatchery, which opened in 1897, produces millions of trout eggs annually. These eggs are shipped to federal, state and tribal hatcheries throughout the country. Last year, the hatchery produced approximately 16 million eggs, a facility record.

   “The fish hatchery’s always been a center for community activity, and a source of great national pride and of great local pride for Unicoi County and UpperEastTennessee,”Alexander said. “The agreement by TVA today to contribute to funding by purchasing fish from the fish hatcheries means the Erwin Fish Hatchery will stay open for at least three more years.”

   The agencies involved in the agreement will next form a “working group” with the goal of having the draft of a permanent funding agreement within the next year. While Alexander said a permanent solution has not been ironed out yet, the three-year funding agreement buys the agencies involved time to do so.

   “Hopefully we won’t run up against a deadline three years from now and have to scramble to come up with a permanent solution,” he said. “So we don’t know the solution now, but having three years to come up with one is very good news, and having a goal of coming up with a permanent solution in one year is also good news.”

   “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service greatly appreciates TVA’s dedicated funding for the next three years,” Cindy Dohner, USFWS regional director for the Southeast, said in a release. “We also are encouraged by the commitment by all the agencies to develop a long-term sustainable funding source for this important conservation, recreational and economic activity for our citizens.”

   Erwin National Fish Hatchery Manager Norm Heil lauded the agreement, adding that the hatcheries have a significant impact on national and local economies.

   “That’s what it’s all about,” Heil said. “Senator Alexander was the main senator that helped get this going.”

   Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch also praised Alexander’s efforts and said the hatchery is a community asset. Lynch said he hopes a permanent agreement is worked out.

   “This was something that everybody has been concerned about because the fish hatchery, not from an angler’s point of view, but from an economic development and tourism point of view, is a good draw,” Lynch said.