Closing upstate hatchery could affect fishing

Bennington Fish Culture Station to remain open in current plan

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BENNINGTON — A significant gap in stocking fish awaits if the state follows through with its plan to close the Salisbury Fish Culture Station, officials say.

The hatchery's parent fish can't breed at the Bennington Fish Culture Station, or any of the other stations, meaning the state will endure a gap in fish stocks of years as it waits for the Salisbury station's eggs to mature into parent fish.

Vermont's Fish and Wildlife commissioner is expecting that fishing revenues will fall due to the gap in new fish stocks — but by how much, he could not predict.

"We hope that the savings will be more than the cost, but that remains to be seen," said Louis Porter, commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. The state would save $250,000 in closing the Salisbury station.

Porter said his department will propose a "phased-in" approach to the closure over several months, to minimize the impact.

But the gap in fish stocking will still happen, he said.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed closing the station as part of his budget plan for next year.

"We're faced with a tough budget situation here at Vermont Fish and Wildlife," said Adam Miller, fish culture operations manager for the state. "Hatcheries cost a significant portion of money."

Anglers have long relied on the state's fish stocking; the Bennington Fish Culture Station was built in 1916.

The state's five hatcheries generate a significant economic benefit for the state from fishing.

"It happens primarily in rural parts of the state that otherwise don't necessarily see a lot of economic activity," Porter said.

In 2018, the state received $3.2 million in fishing license revenue. The majority of the fishing licenses sold were resident fishing licenses, with an annual cost of $26, according to state data.

The hatcheries also contribute to environmental conservation, Porter said.

"We encourage people to care about and be engaged in the natural world," he said. "One of the ways we do that is through stocking fish that they go out and fish for."

The Salisbury station in particular is facing a costly need to upgrade to meet modern wastewater standards.

"When we're looking at places in our budget to cut, this made sense because it's out of compliance with permitted standards already," Porter said.

Bennington's fish hatchery produces brook, brown and rainbow trout for stocking the state's waters. It's ultimately affected by the Salisbury station, as that station hosts parent fish who provide eggs that are distributed to the other hatcheries, and eventually released once they're adult fish.

Altogether, the state stocks about a million fish annually.

Ideally, if Salisbury's station closes, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department would continue to use those parent fish for breeding.

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But it's not that simple, as the Salisbury hatchery has a disease called furunculosis. The other hatcheries don't. It's present in adult fish, but eggs can be disinfected to prevent its spread.

Moving the parent fish from Salisbury could risk infecting other populations at hatcheries that haven't had that disease for a long time, like the hatchery in Bennington, Miller said.

"Ideally, if we didn't have a disease problem, we would end up shipping those fish out to those other hatcheries," he said.

But since they can't, only the eggs from the Salisbury hatchery would be moved to other hatcheries.

And without those parent fish Salisbury provided, there will be a gap in stocking fish, as the hatcheries must wait for the eggs to become fish — the new parent fish.

"We would have to send eggs out instead of fish to the other hatcheries, and then those hatcheries would need to raise those eggs to be the new parent fish," Miller said. "What this would mean would be that for a certain period of time, there would be a gap in the stocking of fish statewide."

It takes a while to raise trout to breeding age — brook trout take about 3 years, while lake trout take 7 years, Miller said.

"You would have that lag of having to wait for those fish to grow up," he said.

Fish in other hatcheries can't be bred — they're needed to meet state fish stocking goals.

And the parent, or brood fish are especially bred with an eye toward quality genetics.

"These are the fish that are going to be providing eggs for generations and generations," Miller said. "If we just spawned a [non-parent] fish with [another non-parent] fish, they don't have the maximum diversity that we'd like to see in our fish stocks."

If his department bred "production" fish — that is, non-brood stock, Miller said they would have "serious concerns."

"Don't want fish with three eyes, or anything like that," he said.

It's important the fish be genetically diverse for multiple reasons, he said. For one, the state wants to provide anglers with the best fish they can.

"A fish that's smart, that fights well, that eats well, that has good-quality meat," Miller said, describing a quality fish. "Fishing and eating fish is a great way in Vermont to get local food."

And, some strains of fish also perform much better in terms of establishing themselves in the wild once released, he said.

Stocking fish maintains people's connection to nature and adds value to the ecosystem.

That's especially important in terms of human impact on the environment of fish, which comes from things like development, Miller said.

Besides Salisbury and Bennington, hatcheries are operated in Newark, Grand Isle and Roxbury.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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