ADDISON COUNTY — Many people like to visit Vermont for the beautiful scenery and the local attractions. Big attractions like Lake Champlain or the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory sometimes overshadow some of the smaller places to visit.
One example of these hidden gems is the state fish hatcheries, which are a good place to learn about fish — which species can be caught in Vermont waters and how they get there.
Five hatcheries are sprinkled around the Green Mountain State, with the southwest covered by the Bennington Fish Culture Station, located on South Stream Road in Bennington. In central Vermont the Roxbury Fish Culture Station can be found on Route 12A eight miles south of Northfield. The Northeast Kingdom has the Bald Hill Fish Culture Station, located about eight miles north of West Burke off of Route 5A.
North and west of Burlington is the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station on Route 314 in Grand Isle; it’s near the ferry to Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Here in Addison County, the fish hatchery at the Salisbury Fish Culture Station off Route 53 near Lake Dunmore is frequently visited by locals and school groups, as well as seasonal visitors. As at all of the hatcheries, sightseers can learn about fish and enjoy being outside in nature.
As a bonus, visitors in Salisbury can also interact with the fish: feed is available to give to the fish and to watch them eat.
Hatcheries raise fish for a few years before releasing them into lakes and rivers to keep a steady population. For example in 2012, state officials said 425 brown trout were released in the Middlebury section of the Otter Creek, and around 3,043 fish of several varieties were released into Lake Dunmore.
Fish Culture Specialist Gabe Cameron, who works at the Salisbury hatchery, explained that there are two rows of pools, each divided into sections of fish. The younger ones are at the front, with the older ones at the end. All the water gets let out into a pond, where there are free-swimming fish.
“We have two wells that run the water through a series of raceways and underground pipes,” he said.
The hatchery breeds its own fish, using a year-round system called the Lighthouse Program.
“We photo-manipulate them,” Cameron said. “We trick them into thinking it’s fall when it’s really spring. It gives us a little extra time to raise them.”
Instead of trying to raise fish on cold winter waters, they can use the Lighthouse Program and simulate summer- or spring-temperature water for the fish to grow and produce eggs in.
The hatchery raises all its own fish as well as sending eggs to other hatcheries to be raised. The other fish will be raised to be what Cameron called “production fish.” They are around 18 months old — old enough to be put into the rivers each year.
“There are about two cycles on station at a time,” he explained. “You’ll have your start tank room fish, and you’ll have the fish that will go out each spring. It’s pretty much a continuous cycle.”
Each hatchery in Vermont has to take into account mortality among their fish when trying to reach the number needed for each season. The raceways that the fish swim in have caging above them to block birds from catching the fish; but the pond is completely unprotected.
“We have an osprey that comes,” Cameron said. “He takes usually two to three fish a day. But when his young ones hatch we’ll lose maybe a dozen a day. We try to account for that mortality. So say if we need 2,500 fish, we’ll put in 3,500 fish.”
Another predator that a hatchery fights against is disease.
“We have a fish health pathologist,” Cameron said. “Twice a year they do disease samples. But other than that we have limited control as to what comes into the hatchery.”
Birds, amphibians and other wildlife can carry parasites into the hatchery. Most of these are of little concern and can be cured with medical feed. But the big worry of each hatchery is a disease or a virus that cannot be cured. If that happens they have to dispose of all the fish and completely clean the hatchery and start all over again.
The medical examinations also must all be accounted for in the mortality rate of the hatchery’s fish; it is a lethal examination. The pathologists do a full medical examination of a group of fish, meaning that every part is checked. The fish is cut open and numerous tests are done to make absolutely sure that there are no diseases.
“When they’re younger they usually check out maybe 60 fish,” Cameron explained. “But as they get older, maybe two years old, they only do about 20 fish a lot.”
In addition to being serious operations that are busy keeping the population of fish up in Vermont, fish hatcheries are also nice places to visit. The Salisbury fish hatchery is completely outside, so if a group visits they can enjoy being outdoors. It is open seven days a week. Gates open at 7 a.m. and close at 3 p.m.
“We get a lot of out-of-state people,” Cameron said. “We get a huge number from Kampersville. We also get local people that show up here every week.”
Feed is usually 25 cents for a little handful, but the employees like to help out.
“The way we look at it is that you’re supporting us by being here,” Cameron said. “So if we’re not busy and we see you walking through the front gate we’ll offer you a cup of food. We try to do that with everybody.”