Tag Archives: lake trout

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.

Die-hard angling for lake trout

Curt is a fisheries biologist at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation in New York. Photo credit: USFWS

Curt holding a three year old cisco. Photo credit: USFWS

Today we hear from Curt Karboski, fish biologist with the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office located in western New York. He’s part of a team working to restore iconic fish species such as lake trout and lake sturgeon to the Great Lakes. Join Curt and his team in the Niagara Gorge, located below Niagara Falls as they search for lake trout – the largest trout native to the Great Lakes.

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the infamous Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the well know Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

In a time of year when only the most die-hard lake trout and steelhead anglers flock to Niagara Gorge, it is rare to see fish biologists plying the waters alongside them. But on a cold rainy day in November, biologists from the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office were there, relying on the knowledge and skill of a local charter captain to help catch lake trout they needed in order to complete a study. The highly turbulent waters and strong flows downstream of Niagara Falls make it impossible to use standard fish-sampling gear without harming the fish or endangering the crew.  An estimated 100,000 cubic feet of water per second comes over Niagara Falls, and our GPS has shown us moving as much as 15 mph with the motor idling. Thus, we enlisted assistance from a local captain who has years of experience angling for lake trout in these waters, and in spite of the weather, we collected 22 lake trout!

Dan Drake, Lower Great Lakes FWCO with a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologist Dan Drake holds a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

In conducting our study, we were looking to answer specific questions such as; where do lake trout spend their time in the river and is it seasonal?, when do they leave the river and enter Lake Ontario?, and is their location important to their growth and reproduction? This information will help guide biologists when making decisions on stocking lake trout and conserving their habitat to restore this valuable fishery.

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

In a protected area along the gorge, we moored the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s vessel Linnaeus, to be used as a stream-side platform for measuring fish and implanting them with a tag.  After collecting the lake trout, we transferred them on board the Linnaeus where we recorded length, weight and gender; then anesthetized ten females and surgically implanted them with acoustic tags. 

Lower Great Lakes biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Service biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Lake trout are real wanderers traveling many miles in search of food, and some return to the same spawning beds each year. The acoustic tags transmit a series of pings that can be decoded by underwater receivers and deliver information on individual fish. As the tagged fish move through the river, an array of acoustic receivers detect the pings sent out by the tag, helping  us identify the location and depth of each fish, and the amount of time they spend in any given area. The long battery life of the acoustic tag makes it possible to track the fish for several years, allowing us to learn more about spawning behavior and the types of habitats that are key to maintaining a healthy population. 

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year, as well. Photo credit: USFWS

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year. Photo credit: USFWS

As top predators, lake trout are ecologically important in helping to maintain balance among other species, creating space for aquatic life in the lake. Lake trout are economically important and have historically supported a strong commercial and recreational fishing industry. But by the 1930’s, pollution, over-fishing and the invasive sea lamprey led to their decline throughout the Great Lakes, and by the 1950’s they had completely disappeared from Lake Ontario.

Since lake trout do not reproduce until they are at least 6 to 10 years old, it takes a long time for populations to rebuild themselves when their numbers are very low.  A stocking program, in concert with active sea lamprey control that began in 1971, has been helping to restore the lake trout. The Service conducts these programs with state, Tribal and Canadian partners on the Great Lakes. According to USGS Biologist Brian Lantry, recent trawl surveys found wild lake trout juveniles, suggesting there may be natural reproduction occurring again in the Niagara River region.

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Beginning in spring, we will be back on the river and on the lake alongside our fellow die-hard anglers in search of evidence that our Great Lake trout are coming back from the brink. Understanding their spawning behavior and habitat preferences in the Niagara Gorge will help us manage towards a self-sustaining population and inform future decisions on conserving habitat.

Learn more: Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office

Read other blogs about the work of the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office: Secrets of the Lower Great Lakes: The search for lake sturgeon and Setting the stage for sturgeon


A man stands with waders and a net in front of an Allegheny National Fish Hatchery fish truck

Taking stock in the future of lake trout

Today we hear from Larry Miller, hatchery manager at Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, PA. Larry grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in Dunkirk, New York. Originally attending college for nursing, Larry was hired for a summer internship helping graduate students with fish behavior studies on Lake Erie because he knew a lot about the lake. He got hooked on fish and concentrated his studies on ecology, limnology and fisheries. Now Larry has come full circle; Dunkirk is one of the sites where lake trout produced at his hatchery will be released this spring.

Two men stock fish into Lake Erie using a large hose attached to a truck.

The first  Lake Erie stocking of yearling lake trout from Allegheny National Fish Hatchery since 2005 began April 8, 2013 in Ohio. Credit: John Hageman.

Growing up, Lake Erie was literally at the end of my street. My friends and I would walk down to the end of the road with fishing pole in hand and catch as many sheephead (freshwater drum) as we could reel in before our arms fell off. The one who caught the most was the winner (30+). I remember stories of the giant lake trout that once inhabited Lake Erie and I always wanted to catch a record class one someday.

The lake trout was one of the most important native fish species in Lakes Ontario and Erie before European colonization. Uncontrolled commercial fishing and overharvesting decimated lake trout populations so that by the 1950s the last native lake trout was netted by commercial fishermen in Lake Ontario and by the mid 1960s, lake trout had disappeared from Lake Erie, too.

a man in a yellow jacket and waders stands in water with a hose coming off a truck

Samuel Breene (foreground), U.S. Representative Mike Kelly ‘s Director of Outreach, helped stock fish at North East, Pennsylvania. Credit: Larry Miller/USFWS.

Click here to see a video of Lake Erie stocking at North East Pennsylvania.

Although commercial fishing was no longer a factor, bringing back lake trout to the lower Great Lakes faced other challenges, such as pollution.

Wright Park Beach was about a 10 minute walk from my house, but when I was young we rarely went swimming there because it was covered with dead stinky brownish rotting algae and fish. Ironically the city actually built a pool right next to the lake so kids would have a place to swim! With the banning of phosphates in detergents and better sewage treatment the lake water quality improved. We started swimming at the beach, I became a life guard, yellow perch and walleye fishing got better and the fisheries agencies started talking about restoring other native species like lake trout.

The multi-agency, international Great Lakes Fishery Commission was formed to maintain sustainable fisheries in the Great Lakes. Today the commission has action plans in place to address sea lamprey predation, habitat limitations, insufficient adult spawner numbers and limited hatchery stocking. These include an enhanced hatchery and stocking program for lake trout.

Fish flop on rollers with water splashing

Yearling lake trout in the de-watering tower before being loaded into stocking truck. Credit: Larry Miller/USFWS

Allegheny National Fish Hatchery has the lead for lake trout hatchery and stocking in Lakes Ontario and Erie. In 2005 the hatchery was shut down due to a fish disease. When the hatchery was about to reopen in 2011, I was asked if I’d be interested in being the manager.

At the time I was the Susquehanna River Coordinator down in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and was looking for a change from the one-person office environment working mainly with people from other agencies. My wife, son, dog and I visited the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery/Warren area on a camping trip and went up to Lake Erie. After a flood of memories and finding we liked the area we decided to make the move. I was happy when the hatchery reopened and I became the manager.

A man stands with waders and a net in front of an Allegheny National Fish Hatchery fish truck

” I always wanted to go catch a record class lake trout.  I’m hoping to get that chance on Lake Erie and now have the privilege to work to make that a reality,” says Larry Miller. Credit: USFWS

In 2011 we resumed lake trout production with more than a million fertilized eggs received from other state and federal partner hatcheries. From those eggs we produced 900,000 fall fingerling fish by October 2012 and stocked 120,000 in each lake. We held the remaining 660,000 at the hatchery to raise them to the spring yearling size that we are currently stocking.

We began stocking yearlings this year on April 8 in Lake Erie at Sandusky, Ohio and will continue through the end of May with final stocking in Lake Ontario at Olcott, NY. Our program receives substantial support from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

In the future I hope Lake Erie will return to the glory days when it is not only a workhorse for industry and commerce, but a great place to grow up, can also support a viable, self-sustaining fishery for recreational anglers and a well-managed, productive commercial fishery. I would like Lake Erie to be a good experience to be shared with locals and visitors, and serve as a model for recovery of a lost aquatic resource. And I’m still hoping to catch that record class lake trout someday.

Read our homepage story on this topic.