Two ghostlike figures drift silently through the heavy mist rising up from a pool of restless, smoky water. They fade in and out of view, backs hunched forward, working a long-handled net to and fro as if stirring a giant cauldron.
A barred owl shrieks in the distance, answered by the excited wails of a pileated woodpecker. In the background you can hear the constant murmur of rushing water.
This may resemble a scene from an Edgar Allen Poe short story, but all that's described is just another cool morning in the hills of west-central Missouri near Warsaw. The ghostly figures? Well, they are Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries personnel working at the new Lost Valley Fish Hatchery.
When the fog lifts later in the morning, the bright sun will reveal one of the newest, largest and most innovative fish-rearing facilities in the nation.
Completed in February 2000, the Lost Valley Fish Hatchery was designed to replace the Conservation Department's aging Indian Trail and Lewis and Clark hatcheries, which were no longer able to supply the growing demands of Missouri's expansive and diverse fisheries. The Lewis and Clark hatchery is now closed, and production has been scaled back dramatically at Indian Trails.
Lost Valley's impact was immediate. In less than a year, the hatchery produced nearly one million fish for stocking into public waters. Those included 374,000 walleyes, 369,000 white bass/striped bass hybrids, 183,000 striped bass, 65,000 channel catfish and 7,000 muskellunge.
Depending on the needs of the state's fisheries managers, the hatchery will be able to produce anywhere from four to 10 million fish per year for Missouri's million resident anglers and more than 50,000 non-resident anglers. The hatchery also will play a prominent role in maintaining the health of our state's various aquatic habitats.
A product of intense, progressive planning, Lost Valley Hatchery is the largest state-owned, warm-water fish hatchery in Missouri and one of the 10 largest in the nation, said Steve Eder, fisheries field operations chief for the Conservation Department. The advanced technology of its equipment allows the hatchery to produce large numbers of fish in a cost-effective manner, providing maximum benefit at minimum expense to Missouri taxpayers.
In fact, the entire facility has been a whale of a bargain for Missourians from the beginning. The total cost of the facility was $18.4 million, of which the Conservation Department contributed 26 percent ($4.8 million). The federal government covered the remaining 74 percent with funds from the Sport Fish Restoration Act. The money is generated by a federal excise tax on fishing equipment, boats and motorboat fuel. The Sport Fish Restoration Act provides funds for hatcheries, as well as for fish stocking programs and public fishing access development.
"This is a good partnership that offers tremendous benefits to Missouri citizens," Eder said. "This project demonstrates the success of the Sport Fish Restoration Act. Plus, it's good to see some of our residents' federal tax dollars come home."
Covering 971 acres, the Lost Valley Fish Hatchery contains 78 aerated rearing ponds that encompass more than 68 acres. Fish production occurs in a 16,000-square-foot indoor production facility. A 2,000-square-foot visitor's center contains educational exhibits, as well as a 13,000-gallon aquarium stocked with some of the fish commonly found in Missouri. The aquarium also features examples of Missouri's various fish habitats.
Water for the hatchery comes from seven wells that plunge 1,125 feet and have the ability to provide 3,500 million gallons per minute. The water is pumped into two large water towers. The wells and the towers are all connected to a distribution system that moves water where needed through 15 miles of buried pipeline.
A 10-acre holding pond is used to recycle water and to provide ambient temperature water to the fish rearing units. This is one of the hatchery's many energy and water conservation features.
Along with its fish-rearing ponds, the hatchery also contains three pollution control ponds. Water is recycled as much as possible, said David Waller, Lost Valley Hatchery manager, but recycling eventually becomes impossible when excessive amounts of organic (fish) waste accumulates.
"We recycle about 75 percent of the water we pump out of the ground," Waller explained. "Any water that is not recyclable is diverted to the pollution control ponds, where the solids are allowed to settle out before the water is released into the watershed."
Finally, a computerized distribution system ensures that water arrives where it's supposed to go.
"The thing you don't want to have happen in a hatchery is for the water to stop running," Waller said. "The computerized system controls the flow and makes that part of the operation pretty much worry-free. If a problem does arise, the system will let us know us about it."
All of the hatchery ponds have durable polypropylene liners that not only reduce water loss, but also help maintain the good physical condition of fish fingerlings.
"Another thing the polypropylene liners do is keep rooted plants from growing, which protects the pond banks from eroding," Eder said. "That keeps the shape of the pond bottoms intact and prevents seepage.
"It also keeps crayfish from establishing in the ponds," he added. "In conventional ponds, crayfish will often take up residence, and they can grow pretty big in that environment where they have plenty of fish food to eat. Of course, the fingerlings aren't big enough to eat the crayfish. When we harvest the ponds, those crayfish work their pinchers pretty hard, and they kill some fish fingerlings. By preventing crayfish, the liners eliminate incidental fish losses."
Inside the indoor facility are circular and rectangular tanks where hatchery personnel raise fingerlings into what Eder calls "advanced fingerlings." These fingerlings, larger than those those normally stocked in public waters, are put into waters where large numbers of predators would prey on smaller fish. Putting advanced fingerlings into a lake or stream usually results in a higher survival rate for the stocked fish.
"The size of an advanced fingerling depends on the species of fish," Eder said. "For a muskie, that might be 12 inches, but for a bluegill, it might be four to six inches."
Among the fish produced annually at the hatchery are largemouth bass, paddlefish, muskellunge, walleye and white bass/striped bass hybrids. It will also produce bluegills and hybrid sunfish, as well as channel catfish and fathead minnows.
Channel catfish are perhaps the most widely stocked fish in the state and are the staple of the Department's Urban Fishing Program. In the past, the Department had to purchase fish from outside sources for stocking in urban waters. Raising them at the hatchery will allow that money to be spent on other projects.
In addition, the Lost Valley Hatchery will also play a major role in helping to recover several endangered fish species, including the Niangua darter, the Ozark cavefish and the Topeka shiner.
"We made the commitment to work with endangered species," Eder said. "With Topeka shiners, we're going to raise those in a pond to see if we can get them to reproduce.
"We'll also use one of the buildings to start rearing certain kinds of mussels," he added. "Of Missouri's aquatic organisms, there's probably a greater number of those that are of concern to biologists. We've been doing that at the Chesapeake Fish Hatchery, and we have been able to transplant the mussels we've raised back to a river."
Managing Missouri's fisheries is a complex and complicated task. It involves more than simply stocking fish for anglers to catch. It involves maintaining the health and viability not only of specific fisheries, but also their habitats and ecosystems. This mission requires fish production, of course, but it also requires educating the public about the hatchery and the role it plays in managing Missouri's fish resources.
The Lost Valley Fish Hatchery is designed to fulfill all of these missions for many years.
Anyone who owns an aquarium knows how much work it takes to keep it clean and keep the fish healthy.
Imagine then how much work it takes to operate a fish hatchery that produces millions of fish per year.
An average day at the Lost Valley Fish Hatchery begins at 8 a.m., when workers check the oxygen levels in the ponds. If there's not enough oxygen, they'll turn on aerators to pump air into the water, or they'll pump fresh water into the ponds.
Meanwhile, some workers are feeding the fish in the outside ponds, while others clean the tanks in the production room. Young fish consume a lot of groceries, so they must refill the feeders throughout the day.
The ponds also must be fertilized to encourage plankton growth, which provides food for young fish.
"Several times a week we monitor the growth of the fish we're rearing by taking samples," said David Waller. "We weigh the fish out of a unit and count the fish. That way, we know exactly how many fish it takes to make a pound and see if they're growing at the preferred rate."
As fish grow, they eventually get crowded and must be moved to separate rearing units, Waller added. When the fish reach stocking size, they are transferred to lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Some fish species grow faster than others. Also, the preferred stocking size for some fish, like bass, is different than for muskies or catfish, so some fish remain at the hatchery longer than others. For example, walleyes reach stocking size-about 2 inches- in about 45 days, but muskies take six months to reach their stocking size of 12 inches. Channel catfish used in the urban fishing program stay in the hatchery for about two years to reach their stocking size of 1.25 pounds.
"Running a hatchery requires intensive management, and it's a logistical juggling act to balance the needs of our long-term residents and short-timers," Waller said. "Everywhere you look, there's always work do around here. There's never a dull moment."
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