School of thought for fish

REYNOLDSDALE – Pointing to clouds of tightly packed trout swimming in circles last week, Reynoldsdale State Fish Hatchery foreman Tracy Wombacher said: “These fish are basically the Class of 2015.”

The brook, brown, rainbow and golden rainbow trout – grown by the hundreds of thousands at Reynoldsdale – will go on to fill streams and end up on fishermen’s lines in six counties, many next spring but some as soon as this weekend.

The Class of 2015 fish, however, are headed to a new school. Starting in the coming weeks, a yearlong, $6.38 million project is set to demolish and upgrade the pens where the fish live and introduce a modern, environmentally sound filter system, producing healthier fish with less work, officials said.

“It’s more modern technology,” Michele Jacoby, engineering director for the state Fish and Boat Commission, said. “It’s a more environmentally friendly process.”

Since 1928, the Reynoldsdale hatchery has raised fish for introduction into the state’s streams and rivers. It’s one of 14 hatcheries in the state, of which only a handful grow trout for fishing season.

Covering the area from Fulton County to the state’s western border, the Reynoldsdale station’s eight employees hatch the fish, then feed and grow them before hauling the 11-inch adults out in trucks and moving them to streams.

They’ve raised and cared for the fish in much the same way for decades, Wombacher said.

“It’s old-school. It’s old-school fish farming,” he said.

That’s set to change by spring 2016, when the expensive work is slated for completion.

When it’s done, the upgrades – paid for with fishing license fees – will have given the trout a brand-new series of concrete “raceways,” or long, water-filled pens.

Coupled with a new building housing a filter system, the concrete raceways would allow employees to easily clean the huge amounts of waste the fish produce, which can re-enter waterways and damage the environment.

Think of a small goldfish tank: Without regular cleaning, the tank can become cloudy with unhealthy waste. Now imagine the mess with more than 200,000 fish, each one nearly a foot long at adulthood.

Employees at Reynoldsdale work hard to remove the waste, which turns to a thick sludge that can damage the chemical balance in streams. Environmental Protection Agency rules limit the amount of nitrogen-rich fish waste that can make its way into waterways.

With the new system, the station should be in the clear even if the EPA tightens rules in coming years, Wombacher said. Other hatcheries, including the three located near Bellefonte, have made changes, but none are set for the total reconstruction planned at Reynoldsdale.

Altoona-based contractor Leonard S. Fiore Inc., the winning bidder for most of the work, must carry out the job while keeping the trout healthy. The hatchery is set to carry on its work at full capacity, officials said, even if the fish have to live in tighter quarters as the raceways are replaced.

“We still have every intention of producing and raising fish during construction,” Jacoby of the Fish and Boat Commission said.

Tight conditions will prompt the fish to suck up more oxygen, commission Project Manager Paul Urbanik said, but the upgrades will allow workers to inject oxygen into their water.

Otherwise, the multimillion-dollar effort will likely require the same work the staff do 365 days a year: Feeding the trout three times each day, cleaning their pens and keeping an eye on the herons that amble to the waterside and pick them out, even through protective nets.

In all, the fish don’t seem to hard to please.

“They’re happy,” Wombacher said of the pack spinning in circles. “They’re waiting for a meal.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.