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Changes in fish management sought

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In a move seen by some as an attempt to derail a bill that would remove control of Utah's fish from the Utah Department of Agriculture, the agency released an recommendation reached between it and the Division of Wildlife Resources.

Meanwhile, a bill asking to remove fish health from UDA jurisdiction and restore it to the DWR was expected to be filed with a legislative committee Thursday morning.The UDA recommendation calls for abolishing the current five-member Aquaculture Advisory Committee and the five-member Fish Health Board and establishing a seven-member Fish Health Policy Board.

The two existing boards have, in fact, met infrequently over the past two years. The reason, said one board member, was "because we had no power to do anything and Ag (UDA) refused to listen to anything we had to say."

The new board would be charged with regulating pathogens and disease threats; setting rules and procedures for the prevention, restoration and control of disease threats; and setting up an emergency response team.

The board would be made up of two representatives from the Department of National Resources, one at-large member representing fishermen, two representatives from agriculture, and one representative from private aquaculture.

It would be chaired by the director of the division of animal industry/state veterinarian Mike Marshall. The position would carry with it all tie-breaking power.

And there, argue opponents to the plan, is the problem.

"Nothing changes from what we have now. Agriculture has four on the board, wildlife three. Agriculture still controls Utah's wild fish. They've had control for three years now and done a terrible job. We've got a $2.5 million industry (fish agriculture) controlling a $400 million industry (sports fishing in Utah). Now you figure that one out," said Byron Gunderson, owner of Fish Tech Outfitters.

Marshall reported that talks on setting up the new board began in May between the two agencies.

"I'm happy with the way it turned out. I think it will work. This will be a policy-making board. We (UDA) will be obligated to follow the policies it sets down. The two-board system was awkward from the very beginning," he said.

"It's not an acceptable alternative. It does not address any of the concerns felt by sports fishermen. Honestly, it's no better than what we have and potentially it could be worse," said Pat Milburn, a member of the Aquaculture Advisory Committee representing sport fishing interests

"It won't work. Maybe it's better than what we have now, but it's depressing. No one talked with us, no one asked for our input. I'm disappointed with this whole thing," said Ron Geode, head of the DWR's fish experiment station in Logan and recognized as one of the leading experts in fish health and disease in the country.

Ted Stewart, executive director of the DNR, one of four to sign the proposal, defended the move. The other three to sign were Marshall, Cary Peterson, director of the Department of Agriculture and Food and John Kimball, director of the DWR.

In what was seen by several fishing groups as a "purely" political move to bolster a sagging commercial fish industry, control of all aquaculture in Utah, commercial and sport fishing, was taken away from the DWR and given to the UDA through legislative action three years ago. At the time the DWR had one of the most respected fish-health programs in the country and was recognized as one of only a few disease-free states in the U.S. Utah has since lost that designation.

At the time of the move UDA had no facilities to handle fish health, nor did it have a single fish pathologist on staff.

A number of incidents since the change has caused sport fishermen to call for an overhaul.

There was also a strong push by a number of fishing and hunting organizations to introduce new legislation.