Hatchery International

Features Restocking
California hatcheries hunker down for extended drought

June 4, 2015  By Erich Luening

In anticipation of a fifth year of drought and a 25% reduction in water use Unprecedented mandatory water bans are prompting state and commercial fish hatcheries in California to protect production by adding new technologies

In the heated debate over who’s to blame for the state’s current water woes between farmers and city folk, environmentalists and conservationists, and of course local and state politicians, even state fish hatchery and river policies have been lambasted for contributing to the crisis.

         But hatchery managers say they have been good stewards of water resources in the state and will work with regional and state interests to develop better strategies for sustainably using water resources while continuing to produce fish for customers, fishermen, and fishery restoration.

         “We’re preparing for the worse,” California Division of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) statewide hatchery coordinator Mark Clifford told Hatchery International. “We are planning for the driest years on record. Our responsibilities now include not only production for recreational tribal and commercial fishing, but also the protection of threatened or endangered fish populations in peril from unprecedented drought, and some conservation programs as well. We are doing the best we can under these extreme conditions.”

         He was quick to add that the state hatchery system doesn’t consume state water resources but rather, borrows the water, reconditions it and sends it back to the natural environment, all in accordance with the Clean Water Act and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).


         Over the past year or so the CDFW has been in full “drought mode,” moving fish and depopulating hatcheries, adding new recirculation (RAS) and filtration systems to existing facilities and also operating temporary RAS units for short-term use in hatcheries where constructing new facilities isn’t an option.

         “We call them ‘Drought Safe Haven Recirc Units,’” he said. Ten units, built by San Diego, California-based AquaNeering Inc., were purchased by the state last year and eight more will be brought in this year, he added.

         If last summer was any indication, it’s going to be a very busy time for CDFW staff.

         Last summer, the American River Trout Hatchery was forced to evacuate their fish as extreme drought conditions reduced cold water supply essential for egg and fish development, in efforts to prevent extensive losses of fish.

         American River Hatchery operations focus on rearing rainbow for recreational fishing, while Nimbus Hatchery is a mitigation hatchery for salmon and steelhead populations in the American River. Both hatcheries raise fish to release size, but last year hatchery operations and release times and strategies at both facilities were significantly impacted by drought. The American River Hatchery was depopulated over the summer months. Once positive note was that all raceways were dried and so were treated with nano-coating and sealer.

Hatchery evacuations

         In summer 2015, additional infrastructure projects are scheduled at three CDFW anadromous hatcheries. These projects will include filtration, UV disinfection and water chilling to encourage successful egg incubation and early rearing for salmon and steelhead trout. Recirculation technologies will be utilized to maximize water and energy conservation, Clifford said.

         The refurbishment project at the American River Trout Hatchery will be completed by June, bringing online drum filtration, water cooling and UV filter systems, which will house Lahontan Cutthroat primarily, with Kokanee and rainbow trout eggs and fingerlings also housed at the new water conditioning portion of the hatchery as well.

         In addition, catchable fish will be released sooner than normal into state approved fishing waters, and remaining fish for the 2016 release will be held at reduced densities, Clifford explained.

         “If evacuation is necessary all fish (fingerlings and production fish not including those in the conditioned water as prescribed above) will be evacuated to approved waters,” he wrote in an email outlining some of the specifics related to the hatcheries. “So unlike last year, thanks to the new infrastructure, American River Hatchery, even in the worst forecast conditions, will not be totally depopulated.”

Commercial impacts

         The historical drought has strained commercial aquaculture production as well, industry observers said.

         “It’s my understanding that producers who pump groundwater are less at risk than those who get their water from rivers and reservoirs,” the executive director of the California Aquaculture Association, Michael Lee, wrote in an email. “But with drastically low water levels, increasing water temperatures, and groundwater pumping becoming more regulated, all producers are in some sort of danger of their stocks being affected.”

         At most risk, are hatcheries and farms that rear coldwater fish, such as sturgeon and trout, he added.

         “Sadly, we have already seen farms significantly affected by this,” he said. “Calaveras Trout Farm was forced to shut down due to lack of water. The shutdown cost the company $1 million. Larger farms are looking to install water cooling systems to help with the issue, but not all producers have the resources to make this type of improvement.”

         Even when aquaculture businesses aren’t directly impacted by the drought, they still have become more vigilant and open to more dialogue between all users and consumers of the dwindling state water supply to come up with better solutions.

         “While my operation will not immediately be affected by usage restrictions in June, I am participating in the ongoing formulation of regulations to be set forth in the future and modulating our future plans as I gauge the landscape of water use, costs, and regulations,” said Michael Passmore, owner of Passmore Ranch, which raises sturgeon, black and striped bass, catfish and trout, in aquifer-sourced freshwater ponds. The aquifer also supplies a hatchery on site.

         No matter where state and commercial hatcheries get their water supply from, all sides agree that California freshwater aquaculture has a tough summer ahead. 

— Erich Luening

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