Sea Center Texas

Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson is one of three TPWD saltwater hatcheries where a combined total of around 20 million sport fish like red drum, spotted seatrout and Southern flounder are produced each year.

It’s springtime in Texas. In a normal year, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s fresh and saltwater hatchery crews would be running full bore with sights set on lofty production goals aimed at raising close to 40 million baby sport fish for future stocking in public reservoirs, rivers and coastal bays.

This spring has been anything but normal. While the fish have no idea coronavirus is dancing in the air, the pandemic has caused TPWD leaders to make adjustments to daily operations at the agency’s fish hatchery systems. The purpose is to help keep employees and the general public safe while complying with shelter in place orders issued by county governments.

It’s hardly business as usual.

All state hatcheries are running on skeleton crews. Workers are shuffling in and out as needed to keep fish fed, do necessary maintenance on facilities and perform other assignments that come with the turf.

Likewise, a monkey wrench has been tossed into some hatchery production schedules while bringing a host of unexpected challenges to scientists during one of aquaculture’s busiest seasons.  In some cases those challenges have made it impossible for personnel to carry out the intricate processes associated with spawning fish in controlled environments while maintaining necessary social distancing protocols to prevent spreading of the disease.

The COVID-19 crisis has been especially burdensome on the state’s freshwater hatcheries, an immense system comprised of five facilities with 298 outdoor growing ponds spanning roughly 263 surface acres. Each year, the hatcheries produce around 14 million largemouth bass, catfish, striped bass, hybrid stripers and walleye for stocking in public reservoirs and park ponds.

Florida bass usually account for about half (7-8 million) of the annual total. State hatcheries also produce nearly 55,000 pounds of forage (Koi carp, gold fish and fat minnows) for feeding captive largemouth bass brood stock. Other fish are raised on pellets.

Freshwater: Taking a Big Hit

Handling and spawning freshwater fish like bass and catfish is much different than saltwater species such as reds and specks. Unlike saltwater brood fish, which are housed and spawned in indoor tanks by manipulating water temperature and sunlight, freshwater brooders live most of the year in outdoor ponds and spawn in natural cycles.

Holding ponds are drained each spring so the fish can be gathered and brought indoors for spawning in hatchery raceways. The labor intensive process often places multiple hatchery workers in tight quarters for extended periods. Considering timing of the COVID-19 outbreak, TPWD leaders saw a potential safety hazard for their staff.

According to Todd Engeling, TPWD chief of inland hatcheries, the coronavirus along with social distancing and shelter in place restrictions surfaced during the narrow window of time when freshwater hatchery production is typically at its peak. As a result, production work on largemouth bass that should have gotten underway in early March didn’t happen.

“If we had spawned those fish back in March, the fry would have been ready to harvest right now,” Engeling said. “Based on the timing of that, we didn’t think it would be safe for our staff to harvest and distribute those fish during this time frame.”

Likewise, Engeling says Florida bass production will take a big hit this year, possibly down by as much as 60-70 percent.

“We usually go through two spawning cycles with our largemouth bass, and we completely missed the first one,” he said. “Most of our production comes in that first cycle, then another 30 percent in the second cycle.”

Engeling said he is optimistic that hatchery managers can begin pairing bass for the second spawning cycle sometime in late April or early May. If so, those offspring should be available for stocking in early June.

“That’s tentative this point,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what shakes out with the shelter in place orders. The main thing is to be safe. We’re hoping to be able to harvest in early June.”

The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens produces about 4 million (half of the statewide total) Florida bass fingerlings annually. TFFC hatchery manager Tony Owens says he will be lucky to produce 1.5 million offspring this year.

“In a normal year we would have been rocking and rolling in March,” Owens said. “We usually fill our ponds with fry by the end of April, but it didn’t happen this year. We’re like everybody else. We’re in a wait-and-see mode. If things ease up it could be full speed ahead come May.”  

Overall, freshwater hatchery numbers are expected to be down about 50 percent overall this year. Engeling said managers at the A.E. Woods hatchery in San Marcos were successful in achieving spawns between female white bass and male striped bass in February, and those “sunshine bass” fingerlings are now available for stocking. Blue cat production was deferred this year.

“A lot of our efforts right now are focused on raising forage for our captive bass,” Engeling said. “We’re also prioritizing channel cat so we can meet our commitments with our Neighborhood Fishing Program.”

Saltwater Production on Track

TPWD’s three saltwater hatcheries are charged with rearing about 20 million red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder for stocking in bays along the Texas coast.

Red drum comprise about 15 million of the annual output of a diverse system built around state-of-the-art indoor spawning facilities and nearly 100 acres of production ponds, where larvae are nurtured to fingerling size.

While freshwater hatchery production is sure to take a dive this year, saltwater hatcheries are on track to meet or exceed their annual quotas on red drum (15 million) and spotted seatrout (5 million), according to Dr. Chris Mace, fisheries enhancement director with TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division.

“We’re working really hard to mitigate any effects of the coronavirus,” Mace said. “You never know what is going to come tomorrow, especially in such an unusual time. But right now we are cautiously optimistic for a normal production.”

Mace says skeleton crews are alternating 7-day shifts and working from home every other week.

“We’re doing a lot of different things to keep from getting too far behind, but there is no doubt we’ll see some impacts, mostly likely in maintenance,” he said. “We’re postponing some of the routine stuff we always did in favor of keeping production goals on the forefront. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’ll pay for that at some point.”

Salt: A different process

The main reason the COVID-19 crisis isn’t expected to cause significant cuts in saltwater production hinges on spawning techniques used with red drum and spotted seatrout. As earlier mentioned, brood fish are housed in the same indoor tanks where scientists fool them into spawning by playing around with photoperiods and water temperature.

Mace says most procedures require only one person, so social distancing isn’t an issue.

“Once the fish spawn, one person can collect the eggs and move them to an incubator. That same person can scoop up the larvae three days later and move them outside to a growing pond that was prepared by one person a few days prior.”

Flounder, which are usually spawned during late fall and winter, are a different story, Mace says.

“Southern flounder don’t spawn by themselves very efficiently,” he said. “It would be very hard to do with one biologist. If we had to do that right now it would impact us.”

Mutual Problem: Getting Fish Stocked

Harvesting fingerlings from growing ponds and transporting them to stocking sites in a timely fashion are additional hurdles all hatchery managers will face later this spring and summer.

It takes teamwork to tackle the tasks. If social distancing and shelter in place restrictions are still intact, getting fingerlings stocked where they are needed could become an issue.

“If we can’t work as a team harvesting ponds we are going have a real problem,” Mace said. “It takes multiple people working together as a team to get those fish out alive and into a holding tank for transport.”

Engeling says freshwater production numbers could decline even more if restrictions linger into the summer.

“I’m hoping things start loosening up by late May and early June so we can get some these fish stocked,” he said. “If this deal drags on into the summer, our numbers could drop another 20-30 percent.”

Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

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