By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Sometimes nature needs a helping hand, and the staff at the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery is there to give it.
When a species of fish is designated threatened or endangered, federal rules and restrictions are immediately triggered. In a classic lose-lose situation, the fish face possible extinction, while all types of construction projects experience costly delays and bureaucratic hurdles.
Project Leader Ricky Campbell and his crew at the hatchery are tasked with keeping fish off the threatened and endangered lists.
“We focus on imperiled species, and try to get their numbers back up,” Campbell said. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job, but 40 percent of the nation’s imperiled species live in the Southeast. We have plenty to do.”
The hatchery got its start in 1901 by growing bass, bream and catfish to stock ponds, rivers and streams. The mission changed in the 1980s. You’ll still find bass, bream and catfish in some of the hatchery’s 15 ponds, but they’re reserved for restoration work.
“Usually, we restock those after a hurricane or another natural disaster,” Campbell said.
Most of the hatchery’s resources are dedicated to building the populations of lake sturgeon, alligator gar, paddlefish, Gulf Coast walleye, striped bass and others that aren’t thriving as well as they could be.
On a regular basis, 175- to 200-pound alligator gar are caught in the wild and brought to the hatchery.
“Hormone shots make them spawn. That’s how we get them to reproduce,” Campbell said. “It makes the males and females both respond.”
The parents are released back into the wild, while the hatchery staff raises the fry in temperature-controlled tanks. Before the young fish are released into the wild, a sample is shipped to a lab in Georgia to test for disease and parasites. A clean bill of health means the fish are ready to be released.
Years ago, the story would’ve ended there, but this is a scientific operation based on verifiable results.
“We’re not going to just put fish out there and hope they will thrive,” Campbell said. “That doesn’t work. Everything gets a management plan. If we don’t have a plan, we don’t know if we’re reaching success.”
Some fish are tracked with electronic devices, others have markings that fisherman find and report. Tracking provides data about how fish move in the water and where they spend their time.
Scientists take that information and create models that guide the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s habitat restoration efforts. The top three factors are food availability, water oxygen levels and spawning areas.
“We’ve got 40 alligator gar in the Mississippi River that we are tracking. We’ve been tracking them for two years,” Campbell said “We see what they need to have and when they need to have it. The fish have certain likes and dislikes for their nursing habitat. That’s one of the things we keep in mind.”
People who enjoy fishing get the quality of life benefits of catching lake sturgeon at Pickwick. Campbell said a study several years ago revealed every dollar invested in bream, catfish or bass production returned more than $4 to the economy.
There’s another, more direct link.
Consider the modest Yazoo darter, which makes its home in the creeks and streams of Lafayette County. It’s not the heartiest of fish. Changes to its environment could mean trouble for people.
“If something’s happening to them, we know we need to check groundwater, people’s drinking water,” Campbell said. “They’re an indicator species.”
The Yazoo darter’s current problems are caused by construction, not groundwater issues. They’ve been scooped up and brought to aquariums in Tupelo.
Darters are about the length of a finger, and it would be stressful to inject them with hormones.
That remains an option, but Ben Schwarz, a fisheries biologist, is trying to trick the little guys into spawning by adjusting the quality and duration of light and altering water temperature to make them think it’s spring. Water flow might be another way of setting the mood for aquatic romance.
“You’re always thinking about it. You’re always talking to other people and to other agencies to get ideas,” Schwarz said. “They don’t just call me between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. They call when they have ideas, and that can be any time.”
Including Campbell, there are five people on the full-time staff at the hatchery. They’re called upon to collect fish in Florida or tear down dams in North Carolina.
“We travel all the time,” Campbell said. “Very seldom do we stay at the station longer than a week at a time.”
Cooperation with other state and federal agencies makes sense in the current budget climate, when everyone is trying to do more with less.
Inter-agency work also makes scientific sense. For one project, different agencies pooled money and effort to restore hardwoods, create habitat for migratory birds and to create fish habitat.
Summer gives college students a chance to explore career possibilities, and United States Youth Conservation Corps members add their muscle to the hatchery’s projects.
“I’m interested in wildlife management. I’m trying to figure out this summer what I’m going to do, fish or wildlife biologist,” said Lori Haygood, 19, a hatchery intern and student at Itawamba Community College. “He’s trying to recruit me into fisheries.”
“That’s right,” Campbell said.
Haygood has mowed plenty of grass, and she’s traveled to lakes, streams and rivers with the rest of the hatchery crew. She recently helped a team move catfish from one pond to another.
“We do a little bit of everything,” she said. “I love being outside more than anything.”
The hatchery also relies on volunteers like 79-year-old Jacque Prather. He’s put in countless hours over seven decades at the hatchery.
“I started volunteering here when I was 8 years old,” said Prather, who put out U.S. flags at the hatchery for Independence Day.
There’s another crucial partnership that can’t be undervalued. It’s with people who own property that borders fish habitats.
In the wild, alligator gar spawn in Mississippi River flood plains. Civilization has found ways to move water quickly to protect property from floods, but that doesn’t leave alligator gar eggs time to develop.
“We can explain this to the landowner, and get him to leave the water in certain parts for a week. That’s all they need,” Campbell said. “That gives the species the chance to spawn on its own. That’s what we’re working toward.”
Most people probably won’t see the results of the hatchery’s work, but its impact affects waterways throughout the Southeast.
“We’re trying to do the most good for as many species as we can for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” Campbell said. “That’s the point of it.”