There was a time not long ago when crumbling concrete raceways and birds feasting on fingerling were the biggest concerns of Utah state fish hatchery officials.
In recent years much larger issues have emerged — namely whirling disease, bacterial coldwater disease and New Zealand mud snails — forcing the facilities to go off-line for extended periods of time. Those issues can be fatal to trout but have not been shown to be dangerous to people who consume fish that have been exposed.
Barring the discovery of a new fish malady or operational breakdown, the state’s 10 coldwater hatcheries will all be producing fish when the Kamas Fish Hatchery receives rainbow trout eggs in November.
“That hasn’t happened since 1999,” said Terry Howick, fish culture supervisor for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). “When we lose one of these hatcheries we try and make everything fit into the other facilities we have left.”
By changing traditional hatchery plans and throwing in some creativity, fisheries biologists have managed to keep Utah’s waters stocked at established objectives, but with all facilities now operational changes are being considered to get even more out of the system.
“The extent and frequency of serious problems seems to be getting worse every year,” said Roger Wilson, chief of aquatics for the DWR. “We may not make quotas this year due to coldwater disease.”
Utah typically produces more than 1 million pounds — about 7 million fish depending on what size they are when released — annually. Rainbow trout are the predominant species grown in hatcheries, followed by cutthroat trout. Tiger trout, a hybrid mix between a brown trout and brook trout, are climbing up the production charts due to its increasing popularity among anglers. Other species include kokanee salmon, Arctic grayling, brook trout, brown trout and golden trout.
Fish production has been as high as 1.3 million pounds but was reduced due to cutbacks. Howick says requests from regional fisheries managers through 2020 call for 1.2 million pounds. That’s a reachable number, particularly so with Kamas back in the fish production game.
Kamas, one of the most recognized hatcheries in the state due to its location just off of the Mirror Lake Highway in the Uinta Mountains, stopped production in 2010 when the threat of exposure to whirling disease — the often fatal trout malady that disfigures fish by eating away at cartilage — was discovered.
Kamas Hatchery director Ted Hallows investigated the dewatering of nearby Beaver Creek and found the creek emptying into a sinkhole. Hallows realized the creek, which has been identified as a whirling disease-infected water, was likely mixing with the cold water spring used by the hatchery.
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“We checked the hatchery (for whirling disease) and it was negative, but we had no way of knowing how long it might last,” Howick said. “It appears there was some natural filter, but we didn’t know if it would keep working so we shut it down.”
The Kamas Hatchery has never tested positive for whirling disease and now probably won’t after a water treatment plant with an ultraviolet filtration system was installed.
The Mammoth Creek Hatchery in Hatch tested positive for whirling disease in 2002 and also had upgrades. Mammoth, along with several other hatcheries, is now dealing with the resilient and aggressive coldwater disease.
New Zealand mud snails, an exotic and invasive species, have been discovered twice in the Loa Hatchery, most recently in August. That hatchery is in decontamination, but should be producing its normal fish quota by early next year.
In the meantime, Howick is working to revise the state hatchery plan to figure out how to get the most out the existing facilities. His plans may include moving reliable brood stock populations to new hatcheries in an effort to deal with the coldwater disease. Another possibility is converting one or two of the coldwater hatcheries into production houses for warm water species like tiger muskie (a hybrid between a true muskie and northern pike), wipers (a hybrid white bass and striped bass), channel catfish and possibly saugeye (a hybrid between a sauger and walleye).
“The future holds great promise. The production capacity built into these new facilities is way above what is expected,” Howick said. “Because the capacity is that much higher, we can look at warm water production to better use the state facilities and still fulfill all the needs and requests we have.”