Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of hatchery worker and tanks © Michael Kienitz

Raising fish indoors in the coolwater hatchery allows better control of growing conditions and faster growth of healthier fish.
© Michael Kienitz

October 2010

Hatchery renovation is coming up roses

The experienced staff and new redesign at the coolwater hatchery in Wild Rose are producing more fish and bigger fish more efficiently for our angling future.

Lisa Gaumnitz

Goodbye Stone Age, hello space age. Century-old Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery in Waushara County has gone high tech.

Muddy ponds once stuffed to the gills with northern pike, walleye and musky and subject to the fickle Wisconsin weather, fluctuating water temperatures and predators, have given way to more than 100 tanks and raceways in a cavernous building. It's part of the hatchery's newly renovated facilities to raise these coolwater species. A sophisticated water recirculation system sends hundreds of gallons of water a minute into the tanks, and computers tightly control and monitor all water, climate and food levels to keep them within an eyelash of their programmed levels.

On a recent summer day, Hatchery Supervisor Steve Fajfer is giving a tour of the dissection laboratory when an alarm blares and sends him scurrying into the darkened main room. He reaches a big metal control panel and touches a computer screen once, twice, three times to reach a screen pinpointing a problem in the head tank, the literal heart of the water recirculation system.

"Dissolved oxygen is one-tenth of a part per million over what it should be," says Fajfer, pointing to the screen. "One-tenth of a part per million!"

Back in the old days we never would have known, says Fajfer. The fish just would have been stressed. But today, Fafjer sends fish technician Ben Heimbach outside to check out the head tank.

"This hatchery is better for the environment, it's better for the employees, better for the fish we raise and absolutely it is better for the anglers," says Fajfer, who's been superintendent since 1987. He started the push to renovate the hatchery just a year into his tenure. "Now we are producing bigger, healthier fish, and we all believe this renovation will make a lot more fish available to the anglers of Wisconsin. But there are a lot more things that can go wrong."

Early signs of living up to its promise

The new coolwater facilities represent the second phase of a multi-year, $32 million renovation of Wild Rose, long a workhorse of the state's hatchery system that was hobbled in recent years by a deteriorating water supply and aging facilities.

The first phase, renovating the "coldwater" facilities where trout and salmon are raised and constructing a new visitors center, was completed in 2008 and is going swimmingly: Wild Rose is pumping out 2 ¼ million trout and salmon a year, mainly for Lake Michigan, and the coldwater facilities and visitors center collected a trio of national design awards.

Photo of hatchery workers cleaning incubation jars © Michael Kienitz
Cleaning the incubation jars where fertilized eggs start their journey.
© Michael Kienitz

Construction on this second phase started in 2008 and is financed by the sale of state bonds. The proceeds will be paid back with revenues from the state fish and wildlife account and federal Sport Fish Restoration funds.

Miron Construction Company, Inc. turned the keys over in December 2009 and Wild Rose's coolwater staff has since been working through a shakedown period, learning the new systems and appreciating just how sensitive the controls are. Automated monitors track the temperatures, flows, feed and water chemistry of 400 parameters throughout the hatchery. The multiple alarms each day have now decreased to once a week, but are more frequent when storms cause power surges or outages.

The Wild Rose crew brought northern pike and sturgeon eggs to the new building in spring 2010. They hatched them in incubation jars, and then carefully tended their young charges day-in and day-out until they sent their first fish – 23,000 northern pike about three inches long – out the door in June for stocking in three southern Wisconsin lakes.

Like doting parents sending their first away to college, the hatchery workers were relieved at that happy event.

It took time to get used to the new facilities. It set our mind at ease to realize we can produce a good product, says Rich Klett, the coolwater crew chief, who's been raising fish for a quarter century, the last 20 at Wild Rose. "We exceeded our expectations by faster growth rates and excellent quality of fish."

They also successfully experimented with raising lake sturgeon on dry commercial feed, no small feat given that young sturgeon are notoriously picky eaters. The sturgeon hatched and survived in such good numbers that the crew had to remove some from the tanks in early July to provide more room for them to grow. The remaining fish get to enjoy their pampered lifestyle for another three months.

On this day, Ben Heimbach and Jake Seifert give the fish one last meal, then use dip nets to remove surplus Yellow River lake sturgeon from several tanks for stocking. The young fish are barely over an inch long and look to be all tail. With luck, they will grow larger and live longer than a human. Heimbach carefully empties the dip net into a box lined with a plastic bag. He fills the bag with oxygen, seals it and carries the box to the van that will deliver the young sturgeon to their new homes in three northwestern Wisconsin rivers and flowages.

Earlier that week, the crew said goodbye to surplus sturgeon they had hatched from eggs they collected from the Wisconsin River. The fish were stocked in the Baraboo River, returning that species to the river for the first time in more than 100 years. The Baraboo is running high and brown right now because of heavy summer rains. But young sturgeon are tough little guys, and the 6,000 sent into its dark waters are better prepared than most for their perilous, historic mission.

Taking it inside

Those successes show great promise for the renovated Wild Rose. "Everything is so much different from the old facilities," says Klett.

Pike, walleye and musky used to spend their earliest weeks in a cramped, 1950s-era building before being transferred into one-fifth-acre ponds outside. Used trout water from the raceways across the street used to feed into the ponds and there was no control of the water temperature or flow.

Now, the northern pike spend their entire lives indoors, can be kept at high densities in tanks and raceways where the water is exchanged frequently, and they are fed dry feed. Such a method is known as "intensive culture," compared to the "extensive" culture in which fish were raised in outdoor ponds at lower densities and fed plankton and minnows.

After the eggs hatch, Klett and his colleagues keep close tabs on the fish, transferring them to a series of successively bigger tanks and raceways as the fish grow. They sort them at each step of the way, putting similarly sized fish in the same tank. "Northern pike are very cannibalistic, so you need to separate the big ones from the smaller ones," he says.

The water in the tanks comes from groundwater wells and the crew can control the temperature, dialing in 50 to 65 degrees for northern pike, as well as controlling dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrate and other levels important to fish health, Klett says.

"One important thing we do now with the northerns is feeding them commercial dry feed, which is free of bacteria and bugs. When you raise fish extensively in ponds, they are fed plankton and minnows, which can bring in a lot of bad things like VHS."

He walks over to another control panel in the main room and touches the computer screen to set when automatic feeders will open and for how long they remain open – from one tenth of a second to 10 minutes. That precise delivery benefits the fish and frees the staff to work on other duties once they've loaded the feeders with food. The feeders deliver the right ration at the right time. Too much food could worsen the water quality, not enough and the fish are more likely to eat one another.

"We can raise more fish in a smaller area compared to doing it extensively, and we save a lot of money by using a commercial diet. It's very expensive to raise or buy live forage," Klett says.

"We used to raise about 5,000 large-size fingerlings in a one acre pond," Klett says. "Here we can raise 15,000 in much smaller raceways."

Wild Rose will continue to do some extensive culture as well, raising fish at 14 new lined ponds outside. The ponds – six of which are a half-acre in size and eight of which are a full acre – are fenced for security and have special netting systems designed to keep herons, kingfishers, raccoons and other predators at bay. Counterweights and a pulley system pull the nets taut over the ponds. In the winter, snow and ice building up on the nets pull the net down closer to the water's surface, where the ponds' relatively higher temperature melts the ice and the counterweights drop, allowing the net to return to normal height.

Such accommodations to Wisconsin's winters allow year-round use of the ponds. After coolwater fish have been stocked out in the fall, coldwater fish can be transferred into the same space to grow over winter for stocking the following spring. That allows Wild Rose to grow more trout and salmon to a larger size than if they spent their entire life in the enclosed raceways across the street.

More fish with a smaller carbon footprint

The key to raising more fish is inside this room, says Fajfer, as he continues his tour.

"This is the most important room in the hatchery. If anything goes wrong here, it goes wrong out there," Fajfer says, motioning to the main room.

All water returning from the tanks is cleaned here. It moves first through a series of big rotating drums called microfilters. The filtered solids are swept off the screening into a trough. Those wastes are piped to a clarifier outside, and the rest is sent to what Fajfer calls a fluidized filter bed. He pulls up a grate in the floor to reveal roiling water below and dips his hand in to pull up a handful of plastic beads with ridges. "These beads have a lot of surface area and bacteria grow on all those surfaces. They digest the wastes and turn ammonia, which is bad for fish, into nitrite, then different bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate, which the fish can handle," he says.

Photo of hatchery superintendent and filter bed © Michael Kienitz
Hatchery Superintendent Stever Fajfer shows plastic beads from the fluidized filter bed.
© Michael Kienitz

The water then passes into UV disinfection units, then through a heat exchanger that extracts the heat from the wastewater to preheat the make-up water before discharging some to the Pine River. The rest is routed into a chamber where it's mixed with at least 10 percent fresh groundwater. The mixture of fresh new and recycled clean water is pumped outside to the head tank where oxygen is added to the water before it's returned to the building and the tanks, Fajfer says.

While he's talking, Heimbach and Seifert, who have entered the room, unscrew and remove one of the sprayer nozzles, which has clogged. The equipment is all under warranty now, but the crew members watch closely when the repairs happen so they can all learn to fix things on their own; especially important once the warranty coverage runs out.

This is also the most important room from an environmental standpoint, says Al Kaas, statewide propagation coordinator. It allows Wild Rose to reuse up to 90 percent of the groundwater it pumps to serve the coolwater side, which in turn allows the facilities to use less energy to heat the water because it's returned from the tanks at the right temperature.

"We only have to heat or cool the 10 percent that is new," Kaas says. "Clearly, for us as an agency, minimizing our carbon footprint by reusing water and reducing the amount of energy we use to heat or coolwater is very important."

VHS virus creates challenges and opportunities

It's very important to the Department of Natural Resources to have the flexibility and capacity to produce different species of fish in the coolwater facilities at Wild Rose – and the chance to do it in a way that sets the standard for raising fish in the post-VHS era, says Mike Staggs, DNR fisheries director.

"VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) was kind of a wake up call for us, a lot of other states and federal agencies. We really needed to look at biosecurity in our hatcheries and our overall operations," Staggs says.

"By biosecurity, I mean everything from how we handle fish, equipment, and water supply and deploy our people at a particular facility. We don't want to bring diseases to a hatchery – or likewise, if there is disease at a hatchery, we don't want to spread it elsewhere, or to other parts of a hatchery."

Wild Rose's renovation plans were developed before VHS burst onto the national and Wisconsin scenes in a big Following full treatment, 90 percent of groundwater used in the hatchery can be reused saving water and energy. way in 2007. The disease was diagnosed in that year as the cause of several large fish kills in the Lower Great Lakes, and inlay, it was found in dead fish in the Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan systems.

The virus is not a threat to humans, but can infect nearly 40 different native fish species and can cause them to bleed to death. VHS can spread rapidly, fish to fish and when people move infected fish and water around.

Federal and state laws and policies have changed and can restrict where fish produced from waters with VHS can be raised and ultimately stocked or whether fish from VHS and non-VHS waters can be raised in the same hatchery. Fortunately, the flexibility designed into Wild Rose will help. For example, the water supply in the coolwater building can be kept completely separate from the water supply used to raise Lake Michigan trout and salmon. That way, the coolwater building is treated as "medically separate" and can send the fish it produces to inland waters where VHS has not been detected. That's the procedure that was followed with the northern pike and lake sturgeon stocked out earlier this summer.

"Wild Rose has big facilities that can raise lots of fish, get eggs from a lot of different places and stock fish in a lot of places," Staggs says. "It represents a challenge for us, but the facilities also have such flexibility and capacity to produce fish that give us options for addressing biosecurity issues like disease transmission. We're able to operate different parts of the hatchery separately if necessary."

The timing was not right this year to bring in musky and walleye eggs to raise in the hatchery, so this fall DNR will use the outside ponds to raise trout and salmon to a larger size and plans to start raising musky and walleye at the facilities starting in 2011.

"We've taken a conservative approach so we could learn to run these new facilities efficiently and raise quality fish. We didn't fill the facilities up and start shipping fish out right away. We're bringing parts of the facilities on-line with the appropriate biosecurity precautions to make sure we don't introduce or spread diseases among fish stocks," Staggs says. "Ultimately, as we work through this process, I envision Wild Rose will produce fish for stocking across the state and we will be able to do things we don't do now, like raise more yearling trout and salmon and provide greater numbers of large fingerling walleyes, muskies and northerns."

People make it happen

As high tech as Wild Rose is, a morning spent marveling at the building, the recirculation system and the outdoor ponds serves as a good reminder that the art in running a successful hatchery is all about skillful people who are paying attention—people who know fish, can operate the machinery, and can manage living systems that keep fish, water, food, bacteria and water chemistry in balance.

That becomes readily apparent mid-morning after the lights are turned up briefly to allow photographer Michael Kienitz a better shot. Seifert walks up to Klett and says, "The fish have stopped feeding." Klett advises him to shut down the automatic feeders. The lights have stressed the sensitive fish and adding food to the tanks now would only dirty the tank, affect the water quality, and waste the food.

Klett tells Seifert to get bags of salt to calm the fish, and Seifert soon returns with a dolly laden with big bags of salt. The two scatter the salt in the tanks filled with northern pike.

Wild Rose benefits from having a mix of veterans like Fajfer, Rich Klett, Randy Larson, other staff who also raised coldwater fish as well as employing younger staff like Heimbach, Seifert and Ben Kiefer.

The veteran staff and recent retirees like Terry Carpenter, helped design the facilities. They worked with HDR-Fish Pro, the hatchery designer, to incorporate the kinds of work flow, equipment and other insights they had gained from their many years on the job. And many of the inventions and adaptations they've made over the years to keep the ailing hatchery going are still used in the new facilities.

Take the "donut" feeders created by Carpenter – round plastic discs with a 24-hour clock and a motor that spins the disc around. Kiefer carefully spoons dried food onto the disk's outer edge, all the way around; as the disk rotates once a day, a paint brush fixed to the gadget with a clip gently sweeps a little bit of food off the disk.

The younger staff, most of whom have come on board since the renovation started, were trained using similar high-tech equipment in their university classes, although on a much smaller scale.

"This is a dream job for me. This is what I went to college for," says Heimbach, who lives on the hatchery grounds and is responsible for responding to the alarms in the new building 24/7.

"The challenges are fun. You get frustrated sometimes. But you get to go out and stock the fish. That's the best part – that, and when you see kids holding big fish, and they've got big smiles on their faces."

Lisa Gaumnitz is public affairs manager for DNR's Water Division.