By Dan Small
Among the many programs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish Hatchery System keeps a pretty low profile, but it has a huge impact on America’s fisheries through the rearing, health and distribution of a wide variety of fish and other aquatic species.
A quick look at some numbers provides a snapshot of the system’s reach.
NFHS consists of 70 fish hatcheries, one Historic National Fish Hatchery, eight Fish Health Centers, seven Fish Technology Centers and the Aquatic Animal Drug Approval Partnership Program. In Fiscal Year 2018, these entities released and transferred 230,583,112 juveniles, adults and eggs of 94 different species into the waters of 46 states.
The NFHS collaborates with states, tribes, landowners, partners and stakeholders to maintain healthy, self-sustaining populations of fish and other valuable aquatic species. Through its propagation efforts, NFHS addresses such priorities as enhancement of recreational fishing and public use of aquatic resources, recovery of threatened or endangered species and fulfillment of tribal partnerships and trust responsibilities.
Hatcheries also work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to mitigate the impacts of federal water projects. NFHS biologists monitor the health, status and trends of aquatic populations, measure the quantity and quality of aquatic habitat, and limit the outbreak and spread of invasive species and disease-causing pathogens.
National fish hatcheries
Fish production is, of course, a major focus of the NFHS. Sullivan Creek and Pendills Creek National Fish Hatcheries, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, have contributed greatly to the restoration of lake trout populations in the Great Lakes. Pendills Creek has produced lake trout for stocking into the Great Lakes since 1951. Lake trout restoration is coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission with support from USFWS and other federal, provincial, state and tribal natural resource agencies. Pendills Creek produces more than one million lake trout yearlings for spring stocking into lakes Michigan and Huron each year.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, Sullivan Creek became a substation of Pendills Creek in 1959. Access to Sullivan Creek is restricted due to the sensitivity of the broodstock it harbors. A pathogen-free lake trout brood station, Sullivan Creek produces up to 6 million lake trout eggs for shipment to other federal, state and tribal facilities for the Great Lakes Lake Trout Restoration Program. Retired and excess lake trout brood are stocked into inland lakes for recreational fishing opportunities.
Iron River NFH, located in Wisconsin’s Bayfield County, was established in 1979 to produce lake trout for interagency restoration programs in the Upper Great Lakes and to serve as a lake trout broodstock facility. This hatchery produces eggs for the National Broodstock Program, rears lake trout and brook trout for inter-agency restoration programs in lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior and supplies fish and eggs for research and tribal programs. It also manages a program to isolate future lake trout and brook trout broodstock through collection of gametes from the wild. These donor populations are located in Lake Superior and Lewis Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
Iron River coordinates its future broodstock rearing programs with Genoa NFH, located on the Mississippi River in Vernon County, Wisconsin. Genoa raises more than 40 million fish, eggs and mussels of 26 species to support management, restoration and research from New Mexico to Georgia. Genoa has played a major role in the conservation of aquatic species since its founding in 1932. Over the last 75 years the mission of the hatchery has changed from providing sport fish for area waters to a conservation hatchery concerned with the recovery of endangered aquatic species. Genoa NFH also provides fish for stocking to meet specific tribal fishery objectives. The hatchery’s Great River Road Interpretive Center, opened in 2018, focuses on the history and natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River, highlighting education of aquatic wildlife and the Battle of Bad Axe, the final battle of the Black Hawk War fought in 1832, which occurred just south of the hatchery.
Allegheny National Fish Hatchery was established by Congress in 1959 to produce rainbow, brook, and brown trout for northwestern Pennsylvania streams. The hatchery raises numerous strains of lake trout in support of restoring this aquatic species to the lower Great Lakes. Annually producing as many as 1.3 million fish in the early 1990s, the hatchery now produces an estimated 660,000 fish for Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. It maintains a broodstock population of approximately 2000 fish. Broodstock are used to produce eggs for Lake Michigan as well as for the Erie and Ontario programs.
Fish health centers
The La Crosse Fish Health Center, located in La Crosse, Wis., is one of nine fish health centers operated by USFWS, ensuring that fish reared at fish hatcheries in the Midwest Region are healthy. This is accomplished by providing fish health inspection and diagnostic services for six national fish hatcheries and numerous tribal hatcheries throughout the region, providing technical assistance to federal, state, and tribal agencies, providing public outreach, and participating in the National Wild Fish Health Survey.
As its primary responsibility, the La Crosse FHC conducts fish health inspections at each of the six national fish hatcheries in the Midwest Region twice annually. The inspections serve as a method for early detection of pathogens and help to ensure that pathogens are not present before fish are transferred to another hatchery or released into the wild. The center also conducts annual inspections at four tribal fish hatcheries located in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Lamar National Fish Hatchery and Northeast Fishery Center conducts three different functions. The hatchery is involved in producing Atlantic salmon, a severely depleted species in the Northeast. The facility also conducts research on the culture and management techniques of imperiled aquatic species as well as assisting facilities within the USFWS’s Northeast Region in managing the genetics of fish populations. The facility’s fish health component provides fish health diagnostic services to the Northeast Region’s state and federal hatcheries. Additionally, they monitor the health of wild fish stocks. The facility is also involved in Atlantic sturgeon research.
Aquatic Animal Drug Approval Partnership
The Aquatic Animal Drug Approval Partnership program is part of the NFHS Fish and Aquatic Conservation fish health effort. It is the only program in the United States dedicated to obtaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of new medications needed for use in fish culture and fisheries management. Since the late 1990s, AADAP has contributed to virtually every new fish medication approved by the FDA. Ultimately, the AADAP program allows fisheries professionals to more effectively and efficiently rear and manage fish species to meet production goals, stock healthy fish and maintain a healthy environment.
There is much more to the NFHS, ranging from research on the Texas blind salamander to tracking down fish diseases like the lake trout herpesvirus that has plagued lake trout restoration efforts. Detailed information on these programs and many more can be found on the NFHS website, www.fws.gov/fisheries/nfhs/index.html
During the current public health emergency, whenever possible, outdoor recreation sites at national fish hatcheries and national wildlife refuges will remain open to the public. Visitor centers and other facilities, however, may be closed, and scheduled events may be cancelled. Updates are posted on the USFWS Coronavirus Response page: www.fws.gov/home/public-health-update.html. Information specific to individual wildlife refuges and hatcheries can be found on their respective websites.