‘We’ve got a crop just like everybody else’: Hatcheries grow fish for public recreation

  • Andrew Ostrowski and Andy Blajda use a seine to gather trout at the Sunderland Hatchery being transferred to another raceway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Mature rainbow trout swim at the Bitzer Hatchery in Montague. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Brian Guerin and Heather Sadler weigh a net full of young trout at the Sunderland Hatchery being transferred to another raceway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Young trout swim in raceways at the Bitzer Hatchery in Montague. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tiny trout at the Sunderland Hatchery are transferred to another raceway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tim Nye transfers trout to a tanks on a truck at the Sunderland Hatchery being transferred to another raceway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Manager Chuck Bell feeds trout under protective netting at the Sunderland Hatchery. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Fingerling trout at the Sunderland Hatchery are transferred to another raceway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Manager Holly Hubert between the raceways at the Bitzer Hatchery in Montague. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Manager Holly Hubert repairs the protective netting that keeps predators out of the raceways at the Bitzer Hatchery in Montague. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Young trout swim at the Sunderland Hatchery. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Trout swim in the spring-fed raceways at the Bitzer Hatchery. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Manager Chuck Bell at the Sunderland Hatchery. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Transfer from truck to sorting house is by chute – easier on fish than dip nets” in the May-June 1957 edition of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

  • “John Norrel, culturist in charge of Sunderland, with one of the breeders,” from the May-June 1957 edition of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

  • The cover of the May-June 1957 edition of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

  • Early methods of shipping and stocking fish included horse and buggy, train and truck. Fish were packed in milk cans pumped with air and sometimes ice. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

  • Early methods of shipping and stocking fish included horse and buggy, train and truck. Fish were packed in milk cans pumped with air and sometimes ice. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

  • Two photographs taken at the same spot at Bitzer Hatchery in Montague, 98 years apart. One photo was taken in 1918; the other in 2016. COURTESY Photo/MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF FISHERIES & WILDLIFE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2019 8:00:28 PM
Modified: 9/19/2019 8:00:15 PM

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a week-long series about the state of farming in Franklin County.

Something fishy has been going on in Franklin County for 102 years.

That’s when the state established open-air hatcheries in Sunderland and Montague as a way to raise trout to be stocked in public waters across Massachusetts. The operations, started in 1917, joined two other practices in Sandwich and Palmer, set up in 1912 and 1914, respectively, with a Belchertown facility built in 1969 to round out the five hatcheries run by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“Collectively, we stock out each year close to half a million fish in public waters for recreational purposes, for the public enjoyment,” said Chuck Bell, fish culturist and Sunderland hatchery manager. “Everything’s in the public interest. We don’t stock private waters or anything that the public doesn’t have access to.”

The Sunderland and Montague facilities operate as rearing facilities, with the other three hatching fish from eggs and trucking them to Franklin County.

“And it’s our job to grow them out to a size that’s catchable (for anglers),” Bell said walking around the 45-acre operation he has overseen since 2004. He said at one time each facility hatched eggs and raised the fish to full size, but in the 1950s it became more cost-effective to limit the hatching to the other facilities.

From fingerlings on up

Holly Hubert, acting culturist and manager of Montague’s Bitzer Hatchery, named after the man who once owned the land, said her operation is very similar to Bell’s. The biggest difference, she said, is that Bitzer’s rectangular raceways (which hold the fish) are entirely spring-fed, whereas the Sunderland hatchery occasionally uses a pump. Her hatchery, like Bell’s, raises brown, brook and rainbow trout.

“It’s a great spot to grow trout,” she said in the peaceful, tranquil location quietly tucked away off Hatchery Road.

The dark-colored extruded feed pellets Hubert carries in a cup are intentionally lightweight, so they won’t sink to the bottom and rot, harming the water quality. Astaxanthin, a naturally-occurring pigment, is added to the high-protein food because it contains antioxidants and enhances the colors of rainbow trout.

Bell said the trout mature and grow in any of four earthen ponds or 38 raceways, which are divided into lots strategically leveled slightly higher than its southern neighbor to create a spillway that causes water, traveling by gravity from an aquifer, to splash and aerate. As fish breathe, Bell explained, they convert oxygen into CO2 and aeration replenishes oxygen. There are also some electric aerators for this purpose.

The Sunderland Hatchery on Amherst Road receives trout as fingerlings — about the length of a finger — and, when the fish inevitably get bigger and need more space to swim around, Bell’s handful of crew members divide them among the facility’s water bodies through a process known as splitting.

The employees use fishnets to scoop the trout into tanks, with industrial oxygen pumped into them, on a truck that transports them to another raceway or earthen pond. They do this before noon, when the weather is cooler, so as to minimize stress on the fish, which are gently funneled through a rubber tube into new water.

Both hatcheries in the county can support 240,000 to 260,000 fish at a time.

Protecting their crops

Walking around her 70-acre operation, Hubert said water has less oxygen the warmer it is, and climate change can cause air temperatures to rise. She also said a trout can live 10 years in a hatchery, though some develop lockjaw in their old age.

Both Franklin County facilities have what are called display pools, filled with fish described as stragglers that get left behind when their scaly comrades are taken away to stock public waters in the spring and fall.

Bell said the fish are more than a pound apiece by the time they are stocked out.

Hubert, who has worked for Bitzer Hatchery for 28 years, said there are typically two to four fish deaths a day, and the bodies are thrown into a woody area to be devoured by birds. The facilities span black netting (occasionally chicken wire) over the raceways to prevent live fish from being eaten by great blue herons that like to swoop down to snatch some grub. It is no different, Bell said, than conventional farmers taking measures to protect their livestock.

“This is part of our growing season. And we’re growing throughout the year in one stage or another. It’s a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year process — just like any other animal husbandry and so forth,” he said. “We’ve got a crop just like everybody else.”

Emily Stolarski, communications coordinator at MassWildlife, explained the division is eligible for state money for occasional repairs or infrastructure improvements, but the normal annual operations are funded through license fees and federally reimbursed funding from the Sport Fish Restoration Program. Funding for the program comes from excise taxes on fishing equipment, motorboat and small-engine fuels, import duties, and interest collected and appropriated from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund.

Stolarski said a recent study found that every dollar spent on the hatchery system generates $22 for the Massachusetts economy. Bell explained anglers spend money at bait shops, restaurants and lodging facilities while on fishing trips.

Hubert said fish hatcheries enable people to spend time outdoors, in tune with nature.

“I’m never happier than when I see a kid walking down the street, with a fishing pole. That makes me grin from ear to ear,” she said. “And if I can help keep that going, my job is done.”

For more information about fishing, hunting and trapping licenses, permits, and stamps, visit bit.ly/32GZc8O.

Staff reporter Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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