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Spirits soar at fish hatchery

by Linda Hiller

It’s been a dismal winter for the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery, but spring is always a time of renewal. Wednesday, hatchery personnel got to experience that, as they gathered eggs from running Lahontan cutthroat troat in Pyramid Lake, in cooperation with the Paiute tribe that oversees the hatchery about two hours north of the Carson Valley.

“It’s always nice when you start the whole cycle over again,” said Lahontan hatchery supervisor Larry Marchant. “It energizes us.”

Discovered in hatchery runway water in November, a stubborn bacteria called furunculosis initially required hatchery biologists to destroy more than 334,000 fingerling Lahontan cutthroat trout in February, after antibiotics failed.

In March, another 61,000 fish had to be destroyed, bringing the final toll to 395,000, according to Marchant. After the remaining 130,000 fish were released in Walker Lake and the hatchery was disinfected, it was time for a fresh start – it was spawning season at Pyramid Lake.

Wednesday, Marchant and other personnel from the hatchery south of Gardnerville headed to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Fish Hatchery to get the last of four installments of Lahontan cutthroat trout eggs to bring back to the Valley and raise for next season.

Throughout the struggle against the disease in the last six months, hatchery personnel from the Pyramid Lake hatchery have been an anchor for the Lahontan staff. Because of the furunculosis, Pyramid Lake didn’t receive its yearly planting of around 325,000 Gardnerville fish.

“We understood,” said tribe hatchery production manager, Albert John. “Any place can go out of balance. We’re just fortunate that, at this time, Pyramid is in balance. We’re happy to help.”

– The process. Marchant and his crew annually collect fish eggs to grow into adults for release. The process involves cooperation between the fish and the biologists and both seem to know their roles.

During spawning season, mature trout make their way back to the hatchery site, where water running into the lake triggers their journey up an artificial inlet with a few jumps.

The fish fight their way upstream, into the hands and nets of biologists from many different hatcheries who have gathered to help. The fish are separated by male and female and the females are given a mild sedative to enable workers to squeeze the orange eggs out into a stainless steel bowl, where another worker squeezes the male’s sperm into the bowl.

Marchant and others worked all morning doing this, and the mood, though at times tired, was generally elation. It was a far cry from a few months ago.

“We’re optimistic, but still keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. “As always, we’ll be trying to improve on the last year, but I think we’ve got a good chance. We were very impressed with the run this year.”

Marchant said well No. 6 at Lahontan, most suspect as the possible source of the furunculosis, is being monitored with sentinel fish. If there’s a problem with the water out of there, these fish will be the first to go, signalling an isolation of the bacterial input.

“They look pretty good, though,” Marchant said. “We want to disinfect that line and may not operate that well at all this year – it will make us a little tight, but if we need to, we could do it.”

– It’s part of life. The eggs gathered Wednesday, around 180,000, were rushed back to the Gardnerville hatchery to inside tanks for incubation.

After all the gathering, there are now 750,000 eggs slated for one year’s maturation at Lahontan. Of those, more than half will be released back to Pyramid Lake and the rest will go to Walker Lake and the Truckee River, Marchant said.

Both he and Albert are philosophical about the life and death cycle of the fish.

“The tribe has had their own battles with furunculosis, but usually they can manage around it,” Marchant said. “It’s just a common part of running a fish hatchery. We’re grateful for our good relationship with the tribe, especially this year.”

“When you raise fish, you’re going to lose fish all the time,” John said.

Wednesday, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Hatchery was the site of a tour by hundreds of participants in a national tribal fish and wildlife conference.

Many of the people who toured, watching Marchant and other biologists work tirelessly with the fish, said they are turning a corner in hatchery science, wanting to go to a more natural style of raising fish.

“We’re going more toward the natural, with rocks on the inlets and a whole natural look and feel to the whole outfit,” said Elmer Crow, Jr. of the Nez Pierce Tribe in Idaho. “We think it will ultimately be more beneficial to the fish.”

If you want to see what 750,000 Lahontan cutthroat trout eggs look like, the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

“We’re up and running, and people are welcome to come see us,” Marchant said.

Go south on Highway 395 past Gardnerville and look for the sign on the right. For more information, call 265-2425.