October 23, 2021

Stocking the environment

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Bruce Ryan, a fish culturist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, stands next to a bulletin board filled with photos of anglers and tiger muskie they caught, some of which could have been raised at the South Otselic Hatchery, where Ryan works.

Bruce Ryan spent a portion of his morning cleaning a large blue tank. It was a fish tank.

Ryan, a fish culturist, works for the state Department of Environmental Conservation at the South Otselic Fish Hatchery in South Otselic, a few miles east of Cincinnatus.

Each year, the hatchery raises thousands upon thousands of fish for New York waters, some around Cortland and others in the far reaches of the Adirondack State Park.

Some of the species — the brook trout — are subject to a fishing season that opened Monday.

Ryan, however, is responsible for two other species, as well: walleye and tiger muskie.

The work done at the hatchery does a number of things. It provides anglers with the fish they seek, while also helping with the fish population — stemming the damage to the fish population from dams, pollution and overfishing.

‘It takes a lot’
The first thing Ryan does when he gets in to work is clean the fish tanks — tub-like structures 4 feet high and perhaps 8 feet long.
“It’s very important to keep the tank clean,” he said. “It keeps the fish healthy.”

Two tanks are being used at the hatchery: One for Windfall brook trout and the other for Little Tupper brook trout — each labeled for the waterway they’ll be returning to in the Adirondacks. They’ll be released once big enough, at 3 inches long, Ryan said.

A pipe in the tank sucks fish waste into a larger holding tank, Ryan said. That waste is eventually spread on nearby farm fields as fertilizer.

Once cleaned, with the use of hoses and vacuums, Ryan moves on to feeding the 13,000 brook trout in one tank. Across the room, another tank houses an additional 16,500 trout.

Food is placed on small belt-operated feeders. A timer, Ryan said, deposits the food throughout the day and night.

The roar of water filled the building through the day as well water cycled through the tanks. “Twenty gallons of well water (per minute),” Ryan said. The hatchery gets its supply from a well capable of pumping 300 gallons of water per minute.

Tank water is kept at 49 degrees.

Once the hatchery gets its supply of the other two fish species, care changes.

“It takes a lot to maintain them (the fish),” Ryan said.

Correcting for man’s actions
Many bodies of water across the state — streams and lakes — grow fish well, said Neil Ringler, a professor of fish ecology and aquatic biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. But natural reproduction isn’t always adequate.

That’s where the hatcheries come in to play.

Ringler, who is also executive director of the ESF’s Onondaga Lake Science Center, works with the Carpenter’s Brook Hatchery in Elbridge, Onondaga County, to raise Atlantic salmon.

The main purpose is to restore the fish to tributaries of Onondaga Lake, Ringler said.

Dozens of tributaries of Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes, the Saint Lawrence River and Lake Champlain had spawning runs until the 1800s, according to the DEC. But dams blocked migration, pollution grew and over-fishing caused declines, leading to the eventual disappearance.

Pacific salmon were later brought in, Ringler said. “They couldn’t make them work for some reason,” he said.

Now efforts to return the Atlantic salmon are ongoing through the use of hatcheries. The hatcheries also benefit the anglers who look forward to catching their fish.

A varied day
Once done with the morning maintenance, Ryan’s day can vary.

One day he could be working on machinery, doing upkeep. Another could find him in the workshop doing some kind of repair or maintenance.

Another day, especially in the winter when there are no fish, he could be fixing gill nets damaged from catching lake trout on Cayuga Lake.

Thursday was an odd day, there wasn’t much going on. In the afternoon, Ryan planned to go pick up some new tools for the hatchery.

Ryan grew up doing a bit of fishing. But it was his strong interest in biology while in school that got him thinking. “I thought the idea of aquiculture sounded cool,” he said.

For the rest of the morning, Ryan took a quick trip across the road to stocking ponds used for raising walleyes. The hatchery has 10 ponds of varying size.

“The smallest is around three-quarters an acre,” Ryan said. The largest pond isn’t quite an acre and a quarter in size.

Before walleye fry, the juvenile fish, are moved into the ponds, fertilizer is laid down. It helps the phytoplankton — the walleye’s food source — grow, Ryan said.

Barley straw is also used to keep algae under control, Ryan added, although how it works is little understood. Perhaps the decaying straw releases chemicals that inhibit the algae growth, according to the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University. Other theories suggest the decaying straw feeds microbes or algae predators.

The walleye, which are brought into the ponds in the early summer, spend around 50 days in the ponds, Ryan said. They are then collected and released at 1 1/2 to 2 inches.

On average, 335,000 fry are placed into the stocking ponds. Two months later, about 150,000 are released.

Changing environment
Fish help maintain the water body’s ecosystem, a critical part of the life cycle. They might eat the phytoplankton, or smaller plants, or smaller fish. Lose them and the entire pond or river suffers.

But the fish can suffer, too. In recent years, harmful algae blooms have began popping up across the state in many local lakes and ponds.

In fresh water, a harmful algal bloom is most commonly caused by phytoplankton, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The blooms can produce toxins that cause illness in people, pets, livestock and wildlife.

The blooms use oxygen and block sunlight that other marine organisms need, according to the National Capital Poison Center. Some of them also produce toxins that can harm or even kill fish.

Still, Ryan didn’t know of any new practices being done at the hatcheries to help fish deal with the blooms.

“It’d be impressive to modify the genes,” said Neil Ringler, a professor of fish ecology and aquatic biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

However, Ringler also hadn’t heard of any. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” he said.

The ones that don’t get away
The South Otselic hatchery is the only one of New York’s 12 hatcheries to raise a trophy fish capable of growing up to 4 feet long and weighing more than 30 pounds — tiger muskie.

Ryan said the quota for raising tiger muskie varies each year. It could be as high as 90,000 fish, distributed across the state. Lake Como in Cayuga County; Otisco Lake in Onondaga County; and Long Pond near Smithville Flats are the closest places to Cortland the fish are stocked.

As of Aug. 24, 2018, the state record for tiger muskie is 35 pounds, 8 ounces and measuring 50 inches long. It was caught in the Tiougnioga River in Broome County, according to the DEC.

At the South Otselic hatchery, Ryan stood next to a bulletin board plastered with photos of anglers holding tiger muskies. Any of the few dozen fish could have been raised at the hatchery.

This year, the DEC will get all its juvenile tiger muskie from partners in Pennsylvania, said Jim Daley, superintendent of fish culture for the DEC and who also oversees all 12 of the state’s hatcheries. “They’re an important game fish,” Daley added. “They’re very popular.”

Return on investment
Besides raising the fish for sport, Daley said there is an environmental and economic gain for the hatcheries.

Raising the fish is two-fold, he added. First they provide recreational opportunities. Second, the raised fish help restore native populations.

The DEC is in the middle of its stocking season. Through May, nearly 2.3 million trout will be stocked across the state, other species as well, Daley said.

That stocking will generate $1.8 billion a year in economic activity, the governor’s office reports. Yet Daley said the hatchery budget is around $16 million a year. For every dollar spent on the hatcheries, $110 is generated.

“It shows what our return on investment is,” Daley said.