White River National Fish Hatchery Returns with a New Mission

The White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel, Vermont, was buzzing with life on a muggy Friday in July as over 80 community members, employees and state and federal officials gathered beneath an outdoor tent to celebrate the facility’s reopening.

The celebration was appropriate, considering the hatchery’s recent history. Originally commissioned in 1984, White River was an important part of an effort to breed Atlantic salmon for the Connecticut River and its tributaries, as well as lake trout for Lakes Erie and Ontario. However, it was flooded in August 2011 during Tropical Storm Irene, causing massive damage to both the hatchery and the community of Bethel. The facility has been under renovation since. The devastation was described in posters hung around the back of the seating area Friday; visitors mulled around and took in the images.

Rising rivers. Washed out roads and bridges. Houses sloshed from their foundations. For many in Vermont, Irene’s pass through the state seemed to herald ruin without end, as the storm raked through homes and communities with some of the worst rain and floodwaters seen in the state since 1927.

Will Olmstead, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological science technician at the hatchery, remembers that his commute to work that day – usually a quick half hour haul – took four hours of detours through muddy fields and back roads to get to the hatchery. When he arrived, the sight was unlike anything he had seen before.

“The river was raging pretty good, said Olmstead. “It was full of debris, stuff floating by.”

The White River had flooded, carving out huge portions of its banks and depositing silt and mud all over the hatchery grounds. Fish were swept from their tanks, the electrical system was knocked out, and although a few dedicated Service workers tried to save equipment by moving it to higher ground, the facility was almost completely waterlogged by the storm’s end.

“There were dead fish everywhere,” said Olmstead. “The stench was pretty bad.”

The hatchery seemed finished; down the road, the community was in equally dire straits, with parts of its main road, Route 107, cracked and washed away in the deluge.

But the Service and Vermont have something in common: they don’t give up easily. As the town was being repaired and the roads repaved, proposals were made to restore the facility to its full capacity, but this time with a slightly different task in mind.

Wendi Weber speaks at White River NFH

“After the flood, not only did we face the enormous challenge of rebuilding, but we also knew the hatchery needed a new mission,” said Wendi Weber, the Service’s regional director for the northeast. “We knew that this facility could provide support to our partners throughout Vermont and surrounding states to restore fish and support local economies.”

That new mission is to raise a new brood stock (adult fish that provide eggs) for the restoration of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the Lake Champlain Basin; produce lake trout for the lower Great Lakes and as a back-up for Vermont and support critical applied research to improve our effectiveness. Service staff at White River have been raising fish since last fall, anxious to get a jump-start on the process.

“It’s important to keep native species whole,” said Henry Bouchard, the hatchery manager, adding that the Service’s collaborative stocking efforts in New York and Vermont are a major help in making fish species more resilient. One recent sign of success is the first documented natural salmon reproduction last year in two tributaries to Lake Champlain (the Winooski River in Vermont and the Boquet River in New York) in over 150 years.

In the five years following Tropical Storm Irene, USFWS, state and local government and numerous NGO partners worked together to invest over $2 million in repairing the hatchery. Meanwhile, Olmstead, along with several of the other Service workers at the White River hatchery, continued his work with the remaining fish stocks at the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in North Chittenden, Vermont 45 minutes west of Bethel.

In his remarks at the reopening, Senator Patrick Leahy – who also attended the hatchery’s first opening in 1984 – praised the hatchery workers for their resilience, calling them “some of the most dedicated professionals I have met in my life.”

“This is a story of heroics,” he added. “I wonder anywhere else you would see such dedication?”

Members of the community, who like the hatchery were forced to weather Hurricane Irene, were also proud to see the facility reopen.

“To me, this is a red letter day,” said Eric Darnell of Stafford, Vermont. “It’s a true testament to local, state and federal [government] working together for a common cause.”

It took several years to get the station running again, but good things come to those who wait. The hatchery will now play an important role in helping trout and salmon rebound in the region.

“This hatchery is really a symbol of resilience, it’s a symbol of the future, it’s a symbol of respect for nature,” said Congressman Welch. “We have to play a positive role in sustaining it.”

Learn more about Atlantic salmon in this five-part series that follows its journey upstream to spawn in a tributary of Lake Champlain.

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