Before the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, West Virginia fisheries officials had hoped to have a new trout-management plan in place by Jan. 1, 2021.
The virus knocked those hopes into a cocked hat. The deadline now is sometime in the summer of 2021. Jim Hedrick, who is coordinating the effort to draft the plan, said the teams working on it made considerable progress despite the pandemic.
“We had meetings scheduled for right about the time COVID-19 hit,” said Hedrick, supervisor of hatcheries for the state Division of Natural Resources. “We had to delay those meetings until July, and use masks and social distancing to pull them off.”
During a series of meetings during the fall of 2019, DNR officials solicited anglers’ opinions about trout fishing in the Mountain State — what they liked, what they didn’t like and what needed to be improved.
“We got a lot of feedback, both from the meetings and from comments that were posted online,” Hedrick said. “From the online portion alone, we received more than 7,000 comments about what is good and bad.”
In addition, Hedrick and his colleagues identified stakeholders — people who represented groups with vested interests in trout fishing — and invited them to help with the planning.
“We wanted to get representatives from a wide variety of interests, such as people from Trout Unlimited, fly fishermen, watershed groups, folks who fish for lots of species, people who fish only for trout, and people from different parts of the state,” Hedrick said.
“We ended up with 12 people on the stakeholder committee. We felt that it would be difficult to come to agreements if we had more than that.”
Committee members had to be willing to volunteer their time, and to travel to meetings held all around the state. Hedrick said the first meeting took place in July.
“The point of the first meeting was to bring everyone up to speed, and to share with us issues about stocked trout and wild trout from the standpoint of the groups they represented,” he said.
“We provided them with all the comments we received online and in the public meetings. From all that, they identified both the problems and the good parts of our current program.”
The stakeholders’ comments and ideas then moved to a “technical committee” composed mainly of biologists.
“There are a few DNR people on it, plus representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Parks Section, and the DNR Law Enforcement Section,” Hedrick said. “It’s a pretty potent committee.”
The technical committee’s job, he added, is to make sure goals put forth by the stakeholders don’t affect other fish species or the environment.
“As much as possible, the technical committee’s job is to figure out how to accomplish those goals without playing the trump card and vetoing them,” he said.
Members of the technical committee placed each of the identified problems into one of seven broad categories: Funding, Investment and Capacity; Diversify and Enhance Access; Habitat; Ecological Health and Risk; Diversification of Stocked-Trout Fishing Opportunities; Enhancing Native and Wild Trout Fisheries; and Education, Information and Marketing.
“All the concerns were put into paragraph form under those headings,” Hedrick said. “The stakeholders then commented on them. If the paragraphs didn’t represent the intent of the stakeholders, the technical committee went back and changed them into a form the stakeholders would be comfortable with.”
At another meeting, Hedrick said stakeholders were asked to place values on their suggestions. Members of the technical committee then took those values and put them in paragraph form under the headings.
“That’s where we are right now,” Hedrick continued. “The next stakeholder meeting will be to review all the issues, and to start establishing what the goals of [the DNR] should be, based on what we have.”
“The technical committee will look at those goals, and then it will be DNR’s responsibility to make a plan based on those goals.”
When the draft plan is complete, DNR officials will hold public meetings and solicit public comments on it.
“The plan will then be edited, based on the public’s comments, and will be presented to leadership,” Hedrick said. “We hope to do that by this coming summer.”
To ensure that the completed plan doesn’t merely gather dust on some shelf, Hedrick said all of the goals and strategies will have timelines for implementation, and methods for measuring their success.
“The overarching goal is to make trout fishing better for everyone,” he said. “This will be our blueprint for making that happen.”