Fishing advocates frustrated, want Conway Ranch fish rearing facility up and running

For the past seven years, local businessman John Frederickson and a group of intrepid fish-lovers have been trying to raise fish in the ponds and canals of the historic Conway Ranch, hoping to fill the gap left by a state fish hatchery program in rapid decline.

But things have not always gone smoothly or quickly for the group and its government landowners (the ranch was sold to Mono County in 1999 and the group leases the land).

This week, Frederickson and members of his Inland Aquaculture Group (IAG) put the county on notice that they had had enough. “Anyone would be frustrated with this,” he said. “It’s been six, seven years and everything we try, it’s always, tomorrow, tomorrow. We have invested almost a million dollars into this property and we are not ever going to get rich doing it, we are just trying to provide the county with a self-sustaining fishery in the event the state can’t keep stocking. But we have been met with delay after delay and we just want the county to pick up the pace.”

IAG documented its frustrations in a six-page letter that hit county supervisors email inboxes late last week, prompting an hour-long discussion Tuesday at the supervisors regular meeting (where a resolution to appropriate $60,000 for a new pipeline for the ranch was on the agenda).

The letter alarmed at least two supervisors enough to vote against the appropriation item. “I think we need to be very, very careful right now,” said District 3 Supervisor Vikki Bauer. “I don’t think we should move on this until we know more.”  

“We just got this,” said county counsel Marshall Rudolph. “It came completely out of left field, so we have not had a chance to really talk about it. We need more time to look at the details.”

Rudolph said he believed IAG was wrong when it said it was not being allowed to fulfill its aquaculture agreement with the county. “There are several statements in their letter that are not correct,” he said. “We believe they are being allowed to meet the terms of their agreement. We hope this is not the prelude to a lawsuit, but it looks like it could be. That’s not what we want. We want the chance to talk to them about all this.”

But Frederickson said IAG is trying to hold the county’s feet to the fire, not sue them. “I’m a nice guy,” he said. “I’m not going to sue anyone. But I want some movement.”

The last straw, he said, was last year when almost all of IAG’s inventory (fish) froze to death because a water source froze and created an ice dam that prevented water from getting to the fish. IAG took a $50,000 loss.

“If we had that water in a pipeline, this would never of happened,” he said (a pipe would protect the water from the elements and not be prone to freezing). A pipeline to divert more water to the ranch fish rearing facilities has been in the works, but delays with permitting have slowed that down, too, he said.

“Maybe the county moved too fast and didn’t really know the terms of the grants they used to buy the ranch,” he said. “I’m not frustrated so much as I think perhaps they didn’t know the limitations of these grants.”

But Rudolph said many of the problems that IAG notes in its letter are being worked out. “I believed we were making progress,” he said. “We’re going to have to sit down with them and try to understand what they want. We certainly don’t want a dispute with them.”

IAG got some high level encouragement for its efforts at the Tuesday meeting. Ron Kovach, a nationally known speaker and angler who attended the Tuesday meeting, expressed his opinions and concerns.

“You have product failure,” he said. “You are in a 911 situation. You have no idea how far your product has dropped. People are not going to come up here to Silver Lake or another lake for eight- to ten-inch fish. They are not going to drive all the way up here. A long term plan for sustainability is absolutely imperative.”

Kovach discussed something IAG dreams of but has yet to get close to; a building on the Conway Ranch that would protect the fish hatchery operation from cold and heat and predators. That dream has met with resistance from CalTrans, one of the sources of the grant money that the county used to buy the 1,000-plus-acre Conway Ranch because the Caltrans grant was connected to preserving the scenic vistas. Caltrans has thus been slow to agree to add a building to the Conway Ranch site, no matter how well the building is camouflaged (IAG suggested a weathered barn design).

At the end of discussion, the board voted 3-2 to appropriate the money for the pipeline and said it would bring the issue back to the table at the mid-year budget review next week. The vote, however, later turned out to be not binding. Chairwoman Vikki Bauer, in an email Wednesday, said to legally appropriate the money would require a 5-4 vote.

On another note, well-known aqua-culturist Tim Alpers was once a member of AIG, but is no longer. He announced a few weeks ago he is running for the District 3 county supervisor seat against incumbent Vikki Bauer, and previous to that, he said he left AIG completely.

“I transferred my interest in IAG to my partners John Frederickson and Steve Brown on Oct. 1, 2011,” he said in an email. “I resigned from the Conway Ranch Foundation Board of Directors on Jan. 1,2012. Alpers Trout LLC remains under my control, however there are no formal licensing agreements in place at this time. I am allowing IAG to use the name Alpers Trout as a marketing tool at no cost. I have no relationship with IAG or the Foundation in any way.”