PLATTE RIVER — Years of deferred maintenance at Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries have resulted in more than worn concrete from races, outdated pumps, leaky roofs and high electric bills.
Reinvesting in fish-breeding facilities statewide could improve hatchery fish survival rates, said Ed Eisch, DNR’s statewide fish production program manager. Much of the work isn’t flashy, like asphalt replacement and some overdue roofing replacements at the Platte River State Fish Hatchery.
Others aim to boost fish production to keep the tiny creatures healthier, Eisch said. This will include ultraviolet disinfection of river water from the Platte River.
“It’s nothing that’s going to increase production, actually, but it’s going to make production safer and hopefully result in stocking more hardy fish,” he said.
That’s the $30 million plan in the latest state budget, the DNR said. Another $4 million will replace the 54-year-old aquatic survey vessel Steelhead, a converted commercial trawler based in Charlevoix.
The bill passed both houses of the state legislature with bipartisan support. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in a DNR statement, touted the investment in fisheries, in addition to a previous $450 million increase for parks and public lands she had previously approved.
Eisch said the DNR was looking to catch up on deferred maintenance at its six hatcheries, even the newest in Oden. This hatchery dates from 2002 but others are decidedly older.
The Harrietta State Hatchery, though the oldest still in operation, dates mostly from 1979, when it was rebuilt, said Jon Jackoviak, the hatchery’s natural resources manager.
Platte River and Harrietta Hatcheries share a bond beyond the department that operates them. Eisch said fish hatched at Harrietta, which opened in 1901, were shipped to the Platte River facility until they reached storage size. That was until the state consolidated a hatchery system once spread across numerous hatcheries and satellite rearing ponds in the 1960s.
Around the same time, MNR began its Pacific salmon stocking program at Platte River, as noted earlier. This was a significant decision for the upper Great Lakes and a shift in focus by the department from commercially fished species to recreationally fished species.
Now Jackoviak and the crew of Harrietta farm brown and rainbow trout as well as Atlantic salmon, he said. Rainbows are for inland lakes and streams, while much of the browns are stored in Lake Michigan. The Atlantic salmon raised there are tied to Lake Huron.
Platte River farms coho and chinook salmon, both of which are Pacific-type, Eisch said. The facility also breeds Atlantic salmon and processes walleye eggs, while walleye hatchlings spend time growing up in various ponds across the state.
Top priorities include sandblasting the concrete cable trays and finishing them with an epoxy coating.
It should last longer than the paint hatchery staff apply every four to five years, Jackoviak said. He agreed that the replacement finish costs more up front, but should benefit operations over the next 15-20 years.
“When you look at everything, it’s going to help with disease issues, so you don’t have to treat as much and save on chemicals for treatment,” he said. “So overall, yes, it’s going to be very beneficial for us.”
The same is true for Platte River State Hatchery, where water eroded concrete fines on raceway surfaces and left aggregate exposed, said Paul Stowe, natural resources manager at the hatchery. This creates many small pockets and pores where bacteria grow and form a stubborn slime layer.
Bacteria causing health problems in fish are one thing, while at the Wolf Lake Hatchery near Kalamazoo, young muskellunge swim around in the basement of a 1930s building, Eisch said. The facility is therefore equipped with a new fresh water production facility for muskellunge and walleye.
Separating those fish from a building that also houses salmon and rainbow trout — as the Great Lakes rainbow trout that spawn upstream — is expected to solve a host of biosecurity concerns, according to the MNR.
Then there are the electricity needs of the different hatcheries.
Jackoviak said the Harrietta facility already has many upgrades to lower its electricity bill, including variable-frequency drives that pump water more efficiently. Even with those upgrades and a good tariff from Consumers Energy, the bill can still total around $120,000 a year.
Besides salaries, electricity and fish food are the two biggest budget items at Harrietta, Jackoviak said. He hopes to redirect some of that money to other hatchery needs once it generates some of its own energy.
Platte River is expected to get those same high-efficiency pumps and a few new backup generators, while the facility’s power distribution system dates back much to when it opened in 1974, Stowe said. Not only are the components showing their age, but the hatchery is gearing up for almost 100 kilowatts of solar output.
Eisch said state lawmakers set aside $3 million in a previous state budget to build solar panels at five of the six hatcheries — Marquette’s location makes solar power impractical there.
At Harrietta, about 800 photovoltaic panels will power everything except the variable-frequency drives, Jackoviak said.
While plans for the solar panels are all but certain, rising construction costs have cast doubt on how much DNR can build or renovate for $34 million.
Eisch agreed that the department is not immune to inflationary pressures that have plagued construction projects across the state, even stopping some in their tracks. His specialty is mass fish farming, not economics, but he hopes the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike could slow demand for new construction and possibly curb rising construction costs.
As it stands, the plan is to budget money based on projects that claim higher priority, Eisch said. The total should take inflationary uncertainty into account and should cover most hatchery needs. The department has a few years to spend it after the start of the new budget year on October 1.
Lawmakers allocating more than $25 million the DNR had originally earmarked for hatchery work came as a pleasant surprise, Jackoviak said.
“I’ve been here 28 years and I’ve never seen a situation where we’re asking for $25 million and the Legislative Assembly is saying, ‘Well, here’s some more,'” he said. declared.