West Virginia trout hatchery rebounding after flood
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — At West Virginia’s White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, starting over hasn’t been easy.
It’s been nearly two years since epic flood waters ripped through the 118-year-old facility, contaminating its trout and trashing its infrastructure. Most of the physical damage has been repaired, but another year and a half remains before the hatchery can fully resume its primary mission – providing rainbow trout eggs to hatcheries in 14 states.
“We won’t be completely back to normal until 2019, but we’re getting there,” said Tyler Hern, White Sulphur’s lead fish biologist.
If the hatchery simply produced trout to be stocked in streams and ponds, it would have been back in full swing several months ago. But as a supplier of eggs, the facility requires a full three years to come up to speed.
“We’re required to provide disease-free eggs, but we’re not allowed to receive adult fish from other hatcheries,” Hern explained. “We have to bring in disease-free eggs and raise our own brood stock from scratch. Fortunately, other federal hatcheries were able to provide us the eggs we needed.”
Workers first had to get White Sulphur’s hatch house cleaned out and disinfected. That took a couple of months. The first batch of eggs came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s facility in Erwin, Tenn., in August 2016. The next batch arrived in January 2017 from the service’s Ennis, Mont., hatchery.
Two sources were needed because White Sulphur historically raised two distinct rainbow strains – the Erwin Arlee strain and the Shasta strain. They’re both rainbow trout, but they spawn at different times of the year.
“Fortunately, both of our source hatcheries had backup supplies of eggs,” Hern said. “In fact, they keep backup eggs in case something like (the flood) happens.”
White Sulphur won’t return to full production until three “year classes” of trout are being kept at the facility. The third year-class of Erwin Arlee fish won’t arrive until August. The third year-class of Shasta fish will arrive next January.
Each shipment of eggs yields 10,000 to 20,000 trout. Hern said that’s more than the hatchery needs to spawn the 9 million eggs it produces each year at full capacity, but the surplus doesn’t go to waste.
“When we have more than we need, we can give them to state or tribal hatcheries that need them,” he added.
Historically, most of the surplus adult rainbows end up in West Virginia waters. Some are sent to Virginia, and some end up with the North Carolina band of the Cherokee nation.
Hern said the major repairs at White Sulphur have been completed, but a few items remain on the hatchery’s to-do list.
“The big projects were getting rid of all the mold and fixing the physical damage to the infrastructure,” he continued. “The brood house was pretty much destroyed, and the raceway building was damaged. Those were completed last year, because they were key to our primary mission, which is to produce trout eggs and mussel larvae. Now we’re doing things like replacing fences and fixing asphalt. It’s been more than a year and a half since the flood, and we’re still working on it.”
Until White Sulphur ships its first batches of eggs, Hern said the focus would be on developing what he calls the hatchery’s “captive strain” of trout.
“We’re eager to see how the trout are going to perform,” he explained. “Before the flood, we raised our brood trout from eggs we spawned and hatched right here. Now we’re having to take eggs from other hatcheries. They aren’t really ‘our’ fish adapted to ‘our’ conditions. It will be three years before we can be sure how well they’ll do here.”
It has taken more than a little adjustment on the part of the hatchery’s staff to get over the effects of the flood – not just to oversee repairs to all the damage, but also to grow a brand-new population of trout.
“We’re in the business of shipping eggs, not receiving them,” Hern said.