The scrambling is over.
For about a year, repair work at West Virginia’s two warm-water fish hatcheries forced workers to grow fish without enough water. Now, with the repairs complete, the Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries are back online and ready to return to full production.
“We’re cooking with gas now, and we’re tickled pink,” said Mark Scott, assistant chief in charge of fisheries for the state Division of Natural Resources. “For a while there, though, we felt as if we were working with our hands tied behind our backs.”
Production at both hatcheries had been in decline because of infrastructure problems.
At Apple Grove, rips in fabric liners had forced workers to stop using 25 of the facility’s 34 fish-rearing ponds. Worse, rips in the liner beneath the hatchery’s 5-acre reservoir created a perpetual water shortage. At Palestine, a balky pump prevented workers from filling that facility’s reservoir. And then, about the time the pump was replaced, a leak in the reservoir’s dam forced a near-shutdown.
In 2017, DNR officials bit the bullet and shut Apple Grove down for most of the year while a contractor replaced the damaged pond and reservoir liners. In 2018, production at Palestine had to be cut way back while a contractor repaired the dam.
“All of those infrastructure problems forced us to sit down for a couple of years and figure out what our priorities were for the fish we planned to raise and stock,” Scott said. “We had to figure out which species we absolutely had to have, and what we could cut back on.”
In 2017, for example, the repairs at Apple Grove eliminated the DNR’s ability to produce hybrid striped bass and curtailed its ability to produce channel catfish.
“We were able to get some striped bass, but we had to pick them up from other states and take them directly to the stocking sites instead of taking them to our facilities and putting more growth on them,” recalled Jim Hedrick, the DNR’s supervisor of hatcheries. “We also had a bad year for walleye production. We didn’t get enough fish to even need the ponds to grow them.”
Things began looking up in the fall of 2017, when workers wrapped up the pond-repair project at Apple Grove. Hatchery officials were able to fill the ponds and start growing the plankton and minnows they needed to feed the following year’s crop of walleye and catfish.
It made a difference.
“We had our best year for native-strain walleye on record,” Hedrick said. “We had a great hatch of young walleye, and we had the ponds to spread them out into.”
With all 34 of Apple Grove’s ponds now available, production of channel catfish not only can get back to normal, it can be improved.
“The main place where we stock channel catfish is in small lakes and ponds that don’t sustain reproduction,” Hedrick said. “What we’d done for years was to get the young fish in, raise them through the year, and stock them when they were 2 to 3 inches long. The problem with that was, a lot of those little catfish never got a chance to grow because they got eaten by the bass in those lakes.
“With the extra pond space, we’ll now be able to keep channel cats in the hatchery for another year and stock them when they’re 6 to 8 inches long or larger, too big for the bass to eat. Their survival should be much, much better.”
The extra pond capacity will also allow hatchery personnel to raise what the DNR refers to as “advanced” muskellunge fingerlings. That also involves leaving young muskies in the hatchery, feeding them heavily for a few extra months, and releasing them when they’re 10 to 13 inches in length.
Hedrick said having enough water should allow hatchery employees to do their work much more quickly and efficiently.
“Before the repairs, it took a long time to fill ponds at both the hatcheries,” he explained. “At Palestine, they had to pump a little, wait for the reservoir to fill, and pump a little more. At Apple Grove, the water levels in the reservoir had to be kept so low, there was hardly enough hydraulic ‘head’ to push water into the hatch house. Ponds took two or three days to fill.”
Now, Hedrick added, it doesn’t take nearly that long.
“They open the valve and run, because it takes no time at all for a pond to fill,” he said.
While all the repairs were being made, hatchery workers had time to work on other infrastructure improvements at their facilities.
Ryan Bosserman, the manager at Apple Grove, said the long idle stretch gave him and his assistants time to rearrange the entire hatch house.
“We started at one side of the building and moved all the troughs around,” he said. “By doing that, we were able to fit even more into the same footprint. We purchased eight more circular tanks and two recirculating tanks. We’ve got a lot more holding capacity now than we’d ever had in the past.”
Crews also installed 20 more “egg jars,” cylinders that allow water to circulate through fertilized fish eggs while they incubate.
“That’s great for our walleye and sauger production,” Bosserman said.
Fish are living creatures, so raising them is anything but a sure thing. Last year, for example, a change in the weather killed off many of Palestine’s newly hatched muskies. Even so, fisheries chief Scott said the two refurbished hatcheries have the potential to produce more fish than at any time in the recent past.
“Before, it was like owning a 50-acre farm we could only use 25 acres of,” he said. “Now we can use all 50 acres again.”