CROWN POINT - The Essex County Fish Hatchery needs work.
Run by the state until 1982, it was built in 1928 on a floodplain. In the spring, water backflows through the exit pipes, filling the building where the eggs are hatched and the young fish are raised, according to hatchery Director Steve LaMere.
"I literally come in here in hip waders to turn off the furnace," LaMere told seven town supervisors, the county's associate planner and two Enterprise reporters during a Sept. 23 tour of the hatchery.
Director Steve LaMere shows an example of roots that were pulled out of one of the hatchery’s pipes as Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston (left) and Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey (right) look on, during a tour of the inside of the building.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The hatchery runs on a system of trenches and pipes that takes water from Putnam Brook, Rainy Brook and nearby springs and brings it into the hatchery. The pipes are old - some of them are tree trunks that were hollowed out and reinforced with metal slats. Roots grow into them, over time growing to the diameter of the pipe and choking the flow of water.
Sometimes, the roots can be pulled out with a tool called a "snake," but the snake can't reach far enough to pull everything out. Some of the pipes should be dug up, LaMere said, and if they are going to be dug up, it would make sense to replace them at the same time. LaMere described one damaged pipe as looking like it had been "blasted with a shotgun."
LaMere said he has been warning for years that the pipes need to be replaced to avoid "potential disaster" - i.e., the loss of the water the fish need. No such improvements have been made, although about $90,000 was allocated three years ago.
The Essex County Fish Hatchery stocked 17,300 brook trout, 16,000 brown trout and 140,225 rainbow trout countywide in spring 2010. Here are the stocking numbers for local towns:
Otis Brook (downstream sections - county Road 58):400 brook trout
East Branch, AuSable River (AuSable Forks-Jay):
800 2-year-old rainbow trout
West Branch, AuSable River (AuSable Acres):
300 2-year-old rainbow trout
AuSable River (AuSable Forks-Chesterfield):
700 2-year-old brown trout, 700 2-year-old rainbow trout
Lower Cascade Lake:
500 brook trout
Spruce Hill Brook
150 2-year-old brown trout
Slide Brook: 400 brook trout
Johns Brook: 400 brook trout
Barkeater Pond (Special Kids Fishing Area):
200 2-year-old brown trout, 250 2-year-old rainbow trout, 25 3-year-old rainbow trout
300 2-year-old rainbow trout
East Branch Ausable River:900 2-year-old rainbow trout
Cascade Brook: 400 brook trout
Chubb River:500 brook trout
West Branch Ausable (Ski jump to Marcy Dam):
500 brook trout
1,000 2-year-old rainbow trout
Lake Placid:1,100 2-year-old rainbow trout
Upper Cascade Lake:
500 brook trout
West Branch Ausable:
800 2-year-old rainbow trout, 700 2-year-old brown trout
Ray Brook Pond:
400 brook trout
400 brook trout, 400 2-year-old rainbow trout
500 2-year-old rainbow trout, 200 2-year-old brown trout
West Branch AuSable:
700 2-year-old brown trout, 1,000 2-year-old rainbow trout
Red Brook: 300 brook trout
Beaver Brook: 300 brook trout
Stevens Pond (Special Kids Fishing Area):
600 2-year-old brown trout
White Brook and T-3 of White Brook: 300 brook trout
- Information courtesy of hatchery Director Steve LaMere
"We've either got to invest something in this or shut it down," Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said during the tour. Anglers play a large role in Wilmington's economy. Preston originally favored closing the hatchery, but changed his mind after reading the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Freshwater Angler Survey, which found that anglers spent $12.6 million in the county in 2007.
There are other problems. The water to an office building stopped working about six months ago, and the employees now have to use a portable toilet instead of the bathroom there. The building where the eggs hatch and the young fish are raised needs its roof replaced, and could use a paint job on the outside. Much of the equipment at the hatchery is old; they have a truck from 1986.
"Our hallmark has been doing a lot with very little," LaMere said.
The county Department of Public Works has estimated that all of the needed work would cost $500,000. This includes all the building work and water work, said county Manager Dan Palmer, who originally recommended the facility's closure.
"We needed something quick so (county Planner) Vic Putnam could start looking at grants," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas of Jay. Grant funding could help the county keep the hatchery open; so could selling fish to private clubs.
The $90,000 allocated three years ago for piping work is still available, Palmer said, and the plans for the improvements are being finalized now.
"It certainly wouldn't address all the issues we have down there in the waterlines, but it would be something helpful," Palmer said.
There are three people working at the hatchery including LaMere, which he said isn't enough for them to make any of the improvements themselves.
"I can't take a guy and justify having him being here all day long making cosmetic improvements when we have our hands full here doing what we're paid to do, which is raise fish," LaMere said.
Five people worked at the hatchery when the state ran it. By the time LaMere took over in 1990, there were four. When one of them died, the board asked LaMere to see if he could run the hatchery with just three people, which he did, saving between $50,000 and $60,000 yearly by eliminating the position.
"We need more help from other departments," LaMere said.
Help hasn't always been easy to get, though, due to the distance from Crown Point to Elizabethtown. For example, the hatchery's vehicles are serviced by the town of Crown Point because it's cheaper than bringing them to the county DPW garage.
"We're on our own here," LaMere said. "We're a satellite office."
Essex County is facing a multimillion-dollar deficit next year, and estimates of its size keep getting bigger and bigger. From a projected $7 million deficit earlier this year, county officials now say it has to be whittled down from $14 million, due to the funding requests of county department heads.
Palmer proposed closing the hatchery earlier this year, saying this would save the county's taxpayers $281,000 in 2011. County officials are working on the 2011 budget now, and have to pass it before the end of the year.
Opinion on the Board of Supervisors is divided, although at recent meetings there has been much more talk in favor of keeping the hatchery open than closing it.
St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency said she favors closing the hatchery to save money. She said the issue has been "blown out of proportion.
"Someone's special interest comes up and you get a campaign, 'Oh my goodness, you can't close that down,'" Morency said. "We have to close something down to help the taxpayers."
Morency said she is "amazed" at the apparent turnaround in the board's opinion on the issue. She also said that she doubts the economic impact numbers in the DEC survey, and that she doesn't think closing the hatchery would negatively affect the county since the DEC stocks fish too. The DEC stocks about 127,000 trout yearly in the county, but the majority of them are 1-year-olds, smaller than the 2-year-old county fish.
"We have to cut some services, and if the state's going to be doing it, we need to rely on them," Morency said.
Crown Point Supervisor Bethany Kosmider said she has gotten feedback from people in town and from sports clubs opposing the proposed closure.
"I have had calls from people from Crown Point," Kosmider said. "I tell them what I tell everybody, 'I'm doing all I can.'"
Kosmider said she realizes the economy is struggling, but "I hope this one we can keep, because the county benefits tremendously from it from the various sales," such as fishing tackle and guides taking people fishing.
"I think it would be a larger impact than what we've really realized."
Crown Point has a bass-fishing tournament, which wouldn't be affected by the hatchery, but a lot of people also come to town to fish Putnam Creek, which is stocked with hatchery trout.
"There are a lot of anglers out there," Kosmider said. "I didn't know how many there were until I got into office here."
These people help the town by stopping at local stores to buy something or grab something to eat, Kosmider said.
"It's a help to our little town that always needs a little bit more."
The DEC has also weighed in against closing the hatchery. The state makes money off the facility - fishing license sales, for example, which go to the state, as well as the state's cut of the sales tax revenue generated. Some supervisors find it ironic that the state is telling the county the facility is important enough to keep open, but wasn't in 1982 when the state passed it to the county.
Douglas plans to ask the DEC for financial help in keeping the facility open, although he has acknowledged he doubts this will happen given the state of the state's budget. LaMere also said during the tour that DEC didn't have grant money available.
"They're all fighting for their hatcheries and their jobs, and doing more for less," he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have any grant money available either, said county Associate Planner Garrett Dague, and neither did the Lake Champlain Basin Program, according to LaMere. One possibility, said Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey, might be sustainable tourism grants, available through the state Department of State.
Douglas said he would contact the county's state and federal representatives, to look for help with writing grants.
One way to keep the hatchery open could be to sell fish to private clubs, such as fish and game clubs. However, the county's deed forbids this, saying the fish need to be stocked in publicly accessible ponds. Douglas is writing a letter to DEC asking them to agree to change the deed.
The DEC didn't say much about Douglas' request.
"At this time,we await the request from the county to make any changes to the current deed," spokeswoman Lori Severino told the Enterprise in an e-mail earlier this week. "Oncethe department receives a formal request for this from the county,we will review the request, make a decision and respondto the county, until then there is no public information to provide at this time."
Unless the hatchery is expanded, however, any private sales would take away from the number of fish stocked in public waters. LaMere said he is already raising "as much tonnage as I dare," and that the fish would die if he tried to pack more in.
"When I say we're packed to the gills, it's a pun but it's not an exaggeration," LaMere said.
There are four currently dry ponds on the hatchery property, where, LaMere said, another 8,000 to 10,000 fish could be kept, but the hatchery would need more water, which means either repairs to the pipes or another water source. LaMere said he could continue to manage this with the current number of employees.
Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or email@example.com.