A lot of people talk about the green that St. Patrick’s Day and Savannah’s River Street bring to the state, but, during the very same week, a group of guys at the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery do their part to bring more than five times as much to the state’s economy.
“The striped bass program generates $165 million dollar economic impact for the state, and all those fish originate at this facility,” says hatchery manager Chris Harper. On a sunny day in March, St. Patrick’s Day weekend no less, most people are outside enjoying sunshine and temperatures in the mid-eighties, but the fellows at the hatchery are spawning fish and sweating under florescent lights with the sound of moving water all around them.
The fish they have were caught in north Georgia with a method called electro-fishing. “You’re actually putting voltage into the water. Certain fish are susceptible to certain voltages of electricity,” explained Fisheries Biologist Joel Flemming who has been with the state since 2003. The fish are stunned for a brief period and can be harvested unharmed with ease. “It actually took two days to get the amount of fish we have in here right now,” he said and wasn’t counting more than would be showing up in a few days.
When creating reciprocal hybrid bass, from a female white bass and male striped bass, females are injected with a hormone to stimulate ovulation. Between 20 and 40 hours later the eggs are “stripped” into a stainless steel bowl and combined with sperm from the male striped bass. It’s efficient, but it ain’t pretty. Water is the magic ingredient necessary to fertilize the eggs. Men at the hatchery swirl their hands through the concoction with the concentration of a four-star chef over Hollandaise sauce. Everything about spawning is time critical.
Eggs are then placed in clear cylinders called McDonald jars. A combination of tannic acid and 66-degree water circulated keeps the naturally adherent eggs from sticking together and well oxygenated. Forty-four hours later, the fry swim up through tubes, with the help of an upward water flow, and out into a large aquarium. They end up with three to four million fish in there at one time. Five days after that, the fish are relocated to the ponds also at the Richmond Hill location. There they will remain for a month while those at the hatchery monitor the water conditions to create zooplankton, microscopic animals, for the fry to eat. When they are released into reservoirs throughout the state, they are only an inch long!
The staff at the hatchery works seven days a week with little sleep during this time, and that is when things go well. A power outage the day after the fish arrived threatened the eggs by removing the vital water flow.
“We’ve had aquariums clog up and overflow–and you lose a million fish on the ground, things like that. But that’s about the worst that we’ve ever had happen,” Harper says. It’s handy for the fish that Chris and his wife live seconds from the hatchery, but it doesn’t always work out well for them. People have walked past the fence and children’s toys, assuming it was part of the DNR, and right into their living room.
Even so, the mission of those at the hatchery goes on. “We’re always trying to improve the methods we use from the spawning stage all the way up, at least until we’re done with them,” says Harper. “We try to get the reservoir managers the best product that we can.”
In 2011, they hope to produce 4 million hybrid striped bass fry and 5.7 million striped bass fry.