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Amendment aims to equalize makeup of Fish Health Board

An eleventh-hour agreement between sports fishermen, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Food will send a bill before legislators that will change the way fish diseases are looked upon.

The bill would take decisionmaking control away from agriculture and place it with a Fish Health Board.At issue was the makeup of the board.

Originally, House Bill 407, submitted by David Ure, R-Kamas, called for a seven-member board with three members from the agriculture industry and three from wildlife. It was to be chaired by the state veterinarian (DAF's Michael Marshall). The chairman would have tie-breaking vote powers.

The Department of Agriculture has come under fire in recent months for what sportsmen and DWR staff call backward policies and support of the private aquaculture - a $2.5 million-a-year industry - over sports fishing - said to be in excess of $400 million.

Ure's bill would have left DAF in full control of aquaculture in Utah, both private and sports fishing.

"This was totally unacceptable," said Laura Lee Graham, a spokesperson for Trout Unlimited. "We would not support any bill that would leave Ag in control or that would have Michael Marshall as chairman."

Representatives from the three groups met early Wednesday and worked out a compromise.

An amendment to HB 407 still calls for a seven-member board. The difference is that three members would come from the agriculture side and three from the wildlife side, but the chairman would be independent of either agency and would have no voting powers.

This would mean that neither agency has full power and that it would take a majority vote to pass any issue.

The amendment was not exactly the one agreed on, said Graham. "What we called for was board members with more scientific background. It was supposed to be more specific as far as requirement. This is, after all, a science. If we can't agree to this when we go through the approval process, we may have to look at other options."

Paul Dremann, with Trout Unlimited, the agency that helped to initiate the bill, said he was pleased at the progress.

"Our end goal was to have a nonpartisan board that was not dominated by agriculture or, for that matter, the DWR. This is a step in the right direction," he said.

A second bill calling for stricter controls, HB 459, presented by Dave Hogue, R-Riverton, will be sent to rules and held in case 407 doesn't get approval.

Another key point in the bill is that this would be a policymaking board as opposed to the one that is now in place as an advisory board. The difference, of course, is that the policy board could dictate rules and methods of looking for and controlling fish health, while the advisory board can only suggest.

The bill will now go before the House of Representatives. The fact that all sides have agreed to major portions of the bill, consensus is that it should receive little opposition.

Three years ago, Legislative action took control of aquaculture away from the DWR and placed it with the Department of Agriculture in what sportsmen viewed as a purely political move. Since that time, sportsmen and DWR employees have been unhappy with the way DAF has attended to fish-health issues. There are, in fact, petitions being circulated, which have collected several thousand names, calling for aquaculture to be returned to the DWR.