BETHEL — Almost five years after raging flood waters heavily damaged the White River National Fish Hatchery in the Vermont town of Bethel, contaminating tens of thousands of surviving trout and salmon with an invasive algae known as rock snot, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to start raising fish there again.
At the same time, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is finalizing plans and funding to rebuild its state hatchery in Roxbury, which was also damaged during Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, 2011.
For years both the White River and Roxbury fish hatcheries played key roles in developing the region's fishery. White River was primarily used to produce the fish that were stocked as part of a 40-year effort to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River watershed, but it also produced lake trout stocked in other parts of the Northeast, including some of the Great Lakes. Roxbury provided about 30 percent of the brook and rainbow trout stocked throughout Vermont.
The loss of the White River hatchery helped contribute to the Fish and Wildlife Service's 2012 decision to abandon efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River watershed. Vermont still hasn't been able to completely make up the loss of the Roxbury hatchery.
The importance of fish hatcheries goes beyond just the production of fish that will be caught by anglers, said James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, which works to protect and restore the lake and the fish that live in it.
"I can't imagine us ever getting to the point where we can restore (Lake) Champlain or its tributaries to sound water quality standards if we let go of the fisheries," Ehlers said.
The 2011 flooding heavily damaged part of the Bethel hatchery and river water flooded many of the outdoor tanks, potentially exposing the surviving fish to the invasive algae didymo, known colloquially as rock snot, which has been found in the White River basin.
Hundreds of thousands of fish survived, but rather than risk spreading the algae, which can overwhelm cold water lakes and streams, the large salmon were donated to native American tribes in the Northeast for use in native ceremonies. The smaller fish were destroyed.
The service spent about $2.3 million making repairs, and the White River hatchery was ready to reopen in 2013, but by then the decision had been made to end the Atlantic salmon restoration efforts in the Connecticut River. Since the hatchery had lost its primary mission, it sat idle.
Recently officials decided the White River hatchery would be used to produce yearling lake trout for Lake Champlain and to develop brood stock for landlocked Atlantic salmon for Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario and possibly Lake Erie. Employees are expected to start working there full time in the next few weeks. It's hoped the first fish will arrive late this summer, around the time of the fifth anniversary of Irene, said Bill Archambault, the deputy assistant regional director for fisheries for the Northeast Region.
"It really is a strong commitment toward the Lake Champlain salmonids restoration program," Archambault said.
The state of Vermont has been in discussions for years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about how much it would contribute to the $5.3 million cost of rebuilding the Roxbury hatchery, the state's oldest. Unlike most modern hatcheries the Roxbury hatchery had raised most of its fish in outdoor ponds dug into the ground.
FEMA is expected to contribute about $800,000 with the state paying the rest, said Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter.
Repairing it will require the state to bring the facility up to modern water quality standards. One of the outdoor ponds will be restored for its historic value, but most of the fish-raising will be done in modern facilities that will be built alongside the old, now-abandoned ponds, said hatchery manager Jeremy Whalen.
It's hoped construction can begin later this year and completed next year.