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PEF members work to raise fish, stock New York waters

By KATE MOSTACCIO

The welcome sign at the Bath Fish Hatchery.

Did you know New York is in the fish business?

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) maintains 12 fish hatcheries, raising a variety of fish to stock waterways, lakes and ponds statewide.

Ken Osika, a fish culturist, has been a PEF member for 28 years and manager of the Bath Fish Hatchery in Steuben County for 29 years.

“There are two reasons we stock,” Osika said, “to enhance recreational fishing and to restore native species to waters they formerly occupied.”

At certain points of the year before spring stocking, a DEC hatchery can be home to close to a million fish. In the spring, the hatcheries stock more than 2.3 million catchable-size brook, brown and rainbow trout in more than 300 lakes and ponds and roughly 2,900 miles of streams, according to the DEC website.

Raising a variety of fish

Each hatchery raises the type of fish their water quality can support. Nine of the hatcheries are cold water and can raise species such as trout and salmon. Three others raise warm-water species, such as walleye, muskellunge and tiger muskellunge.

Selected hatcheries also raise specialty species, Osika said.

DEC staff Ken Osika and Patty Riexinger during the rainbow trout egg take at the Cayuga Inlet fishway.

“Something we have here, it’s fairly new, are ciscos, which are a prey fish compared to salmonids, which are predators,” Osika said. “They were native to a lot of the Finger Lakes, but were extirpated from much of their range.  There is a remnant population in Lake Ontario and this is where we collect the eggs for our program.” In an attempt to reestablish a population in Keuka Lake, the state has undertaken an effort to raise and stock them. The U.S. Geological Survey lab in Cortland is also working to restore this native species.

The Oneida hatchery raises sturgeon and in the past they have raised paddlefish. The Adirondack hatchery grows round white fish.

“It’s not all sport fish that we raise,” Osika said.

A lot of work goes into raising the fish and it is a year-round, full-time job.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes,” Osika said. “We’re feeding them, keeping the units clean; if they get sick we have to treat them with medicated food or introduce therapeutic chemicals into the water. There is also a lot of coordination between the hatcheries.”

The Bath Hatchery requires 1,400 gallons per minute of cold, clean spring and well water to support its fish population. Droughts can have an impact on the amount of water from year to year.

“It’s a balancing act,” Osika said. “We rely on Mother Nature, too.”

Raising the fish and establishing healthy populations takes time and skill.

“They get a lot of care here,” Osika said. “We raise a lot from eggs here because we have high quality water at the Bath Hatchery. We raise eggs until they are four to five inches and then send them off to other hatcheries to finish raising them. But, most of the fish we raise here remain for a year and a half before they are stocked.”

In an effort to enhance the quality of fish, since wild fish survive in the wild better than domesticated fish, DEC staff harvest eggs from wild rainbow trout using a fish ladder during spawning at Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca.

“Wild fish will live longer,” Osika said. “We can cross the eggs from a wild female rainbow trout with sperm from a domesticated male rainbow trout. You get the best of both worlds. They are considered a hybrid which allows them to survive longer in the wild as compared to domestic fish. They also can adapt to crowded conditions in the hatchery.”

Wild rainbow trout will grow slower in the hatchery, achieving six inches in a year versus eight inches for the hybrids.

A sportsman helps with yearly fish stocking.

Behind the scenes of stocking

Stocking is more than just pouring fish into public waters, a lot of planning goes into the process. When it is time to stock, hatchery staff travels to other hatcheries for fish they are unable to raise and return to their region for distribution. Determining what fish go where is a science.

“Biologists go out and survey streams across the state,” Osika said. “They determine which species, how many, and if the water is accessible to the public. We’re not going to stock anything that isn’t accessible to the public. It can’t be posted and it can’t be a private lake with a private association.”

Fishing license sales in New York help fund the hatchery program and sportsmen should have access to the fish the DEC stocks, Osika said.

Long history

New York was an early pioneer in state-run fish hatcheries and some of the hatcheries date back to the Civil War era.

“The Caledonia Hatchery south of Rochester is the oldest hatchery, built in 1860,” Osika said. “The Bath Hatchery was built in 1893. They were built at a time when there was a lot of deforestation and a lot of issues with siltation, erosion and dams being built so fish couldn’t get to spawning grounds. There was also overfishing.

“They decided they wanted to replenish the populations that were being overfished,” he said. “They wanted to bring in different species. The brown trout is from Europe, brought over in the 1800s. The rainbow trout came from the West Coast. If you look at the old early 1900s books, they tried everything. A lot didn’t take, be it water chemistry, temperature or quality.”

Where can I fish?

Osika said a new trout stream management plan is available on the DEC website and it explains the stocking process, as well as where fish are stocked. Access the plan here.