CMC's Denver Fly Fishing Section
Colorado DOW Hatchery Update
The long battle against whirling disease is finally turning in DOW's favor
By Charlie Meyers - article published 2/9/05 in the Denver Post
If the cleanup of the Colorado Division of Wildlife hatchery system were a basketball game, Eric Hughes might light a victory cigar - or, at the very least, send Nikoloz Tskitishvili into the game.
Hughes, an unassuming man who heads the agency's aquatic program, seems content simply to smile. But it's a big smile.
With the recent announcement that the Roaring Judy Hatchery had been certified free of whirling disease, Hughes and the dozens of associates who have labored so long finally could claim success. Nearly seven years and $11 million later, eight DOW hatcheries have been rendered ready to produce catchable rainbow trout free of the deadly pathogen.
An additional unit, near Monte Vista, recently was constructed with funds provided by Colorado State Parks and turned over to the wildlife agency.
In 2007, production from the Pueblo unit will go on line, along with Pitkin Hatchery, scheduled for cleanup that same year. Three other facilities, Chalk Cliffs, Watson and Poudre never can be completely cleansed of the disease generally fatal to young rainbow and cutthroat trout. The Crystal Hatchery, once certified disease free, mysteriously has been reinfected and a date for cleanup can't be determined.
When all deliveries are completed in 2005, DOW will have planted approximately 2.55 million catchable trout, compared with just 302,000 in 1998, when the Colorado Wildlife Commission decreed no more infected fish would be stocked in waters that qualify as salmonid habitat as monitored by the strictest DNA testing. The entire Western Slope, which holds most of the state's trout resources, received just 158,000 of these 10-inch fish.
What a long, strange trip it has been.
Hughes, who was state hatchery chief when cleanup began, vividly recalls the low point of the enterprise.
"We never gave up," Hughes said. "We were determined to get the system clean."
Hughes' highlight was the recent victory declaration at Roaring Judy, a particularly pivotal facility on the East River north of Gunnison. This unit not only will produce the second- greatest volume of rainbow trout, its hatch house grows approximately 2.6 million fingerling kokanee salmon. The house was pronounced fit last March; it took another 10 months to cleanse the outside raceways.
"I was so pleased when Roaring Judy came back. I give so much credit to the engineering staff, to the fish culturalists and staff who simply refused to quit," the aquatics chief said.
In nearly every case, the challenge proved the same: How to convert from surface water to uncontaminated ground sources. Since every significant stream in the state is infected with the water-borne parasite that causes the disease, it became imperative to use only flows obtained from springs or deep wells.
Before whirling disease and the cleanup dictum, DOW produced an average of 4.7 million catchable trout, fish considered essential to recreation in the scores of cold-water reservoirs with neither natural reproduction nor the nutrients sufficient for sustained growth.
From that 1998 low, yield has grown steadily. Hughes hopes to deliver 4.25 million clean fish in 2007 through increased efficiency, coupled with a 150,000 boost from Pitkin and another 200,000 from Pueblo, which temporarily lost its trout capability when reservoir levels plunged from the 2002 drought.
A substantial number of the 2005 supply comes from outside sources: 590,000 from private hatcheries and 35,000 from federal sources. In addition, DOW hatcheries produce roughly 1.2 million catchable rainbow trout with varying levels of infection, including 800,000 at Chalk Cliffs and 300,000 at Watson. By commission decree, these cannot be stocked in waters associated with sustainable trout habitat. Instead, they are planted east and west of the mountains, most notably in urban reservoirs and ponds. Whirling disease has no health effect upon humans or other mammals.
The long, tangled journey toward full production still has a few twists and turns. More money will be spent; alternating waves of triumph and disappointment will follow. But in the end, Hughes still will be smiling.
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