Thursday August 15, 2019

Catch of the Day

Salmon River Fish Hatchery at heart of Oswego County’s booming sports fishing industry
By Lou Sorendo

    The Salmon River Fish Hatchery

    It has alluring tourism appeal.


    Behind the scenes of Oswego County’s world-class sports fishing industry is a facility tucked away in the village of Altmar that makes it all possible — the Salmon River Fish Hatchery.


    The Salmon River alone generates around $22 million to $24 million in economic impact annually in Oswego County. When Lake Ontario and its tributaries that are stocked by the hatchery are included, that number grows to about $200 million.


    “This facility is really one of the economic engines that makes things happen here in Oswego County,” said Fran Verdoliva, special assistant on the Salmon River for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.


    “Our huge sports fishing industry would not exist without the hatchery,” he added.


    The facility offers visitors a glimpse at some of fishing's most treasured sports fish — salmon and trout.


    Verdoliva, who has been with the DEC for 23 years, works with all divisions, particularly fish, wildlife and forestry.


    He assists hatchery manager Tom Kielbasinski, a fish culturist 4 with the DEC.


    Kielbasinski performs fish-rearing activities and operates and maintains equipment at the hatchery. He oversees two wild egg intakes, with the fall intake involving eggs from Pacific salmon (Chinook and Coho salmon). In the spring, the eggs are from steelhead trout.


    He oversees daily operations, making sure fish are alive and healthy, fed and well cared for. In the winter, the focus is on keeping the facility plowed out.


    Nearly $1.5 million in recent state funding is slated to improve the hatchery, with upgrades to the visitor’s center and enhancements to the fish collection area. The funding was made possible through the efforts of state Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heulveton).


    Verdoliva noted New York state has significantly invested in the Salmon River corridor. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Altmar several years ago to announce land acquisitions along the Salmon River that were acquired from National Grid. That added another 5,000 acres along the river.


    “We have more than 20,000 acres of state forest land along the Salmon River corridor and in the area. That’s a great natural attraction for people to come here, and it shows the importance of this particular facility and watershed,” Verdoliva said.


    There are two aspects to the latest round of funding, one that involves fish culture in terms of the improvements to the structural part of the facility that are going to enhance the hatchery’s ability to raise fish.


    The DEC will use $750,000 to build a new fish ladder, which allows migratory fish to enter the hatchery from the Beaver Dam Brook, and $150,000 for a new crowder channel, which provides fish access to the area where officials sort them for reproduction.


    There will also be an additional $500,000 to upgrade the visitor center.


    “We’re trying to enhance the exhibits that we have in the facility and bring them up to date,” Verdoliva said.


    He said a lot of his work has involved overseeing the visitors’ center, while Kielbasinski and his staff focus on raising fish.


    Destination point: “The visitors’ center is an important aspect of this fishery, which is one of the largest you will find anywhere in the continental United States,” Verdoliva said. “We have people coming to visit from all over the world.”


    It is estimated that about 50,000 people visit the facility during an eight-month stretch from April through the end of November.


    The brunt of visits comes during the annual salmon run from Sept. 1 through mid-November.


    Last year, staff counted about 35,000 people who visited during the fall salmon run.


    “There is nothing set in stone yet on how we are going to do this. We probably will be visiting some other sites in the state to see what improvements they have made,” particularly from a technological standpoint, he noted.


    Verdoliva said he spent time last year visiting other hatcheries, and plans on trekking to Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar this year.


    Five Rivers is not a hatchery, but the DEC-owned facility did undergo major upgrades several years ago.


    “We want to see some of the new technology that could be incorporated here,” he said.


    Verdoliva said a limitation at the hatchery is that it is typically open from the first of April to the end of November, but only has staffing from the end of August to the end of November.


    That limits workers who can assist visitors.


    “I’m here and can come out when available to give tours, talk to people and give them information. The rest of it is self-touring,” he said.


    There is ample information at the center in the form of videos and literature for people to enjoy.


    “But I am sure there are other things that we can do to enhance that,” he added.


    “Our hope is at some point to have an underwater camera that would telecast both inside and outside the facility so that people can see fish as they come through the fish ladder,” he said.


    Kielbasinski said plans call for modifying walkways and viewing areas to allow guests a better glimpse of fish during spring and fall.


    There is no Wi-Fi available at the facility, and the staff is hopeful of establishing cell phone service in the future.


    Meanwhile, spinoff business development has been continuing since the beginning of the hatchery.


    “Who would have thought there would be a Hilton hotel in Altmar, N.Y.?” asked Verdoliva, referring to the Tailwater Lodge and its Hilton brand.


    He recalls when people referred to the area as the “Alaska of the East,” he said.


    “If you’ve traveled to Alaska — and I have as well as fished in Alaska a lot — it’s a rough and tumble world. Some of that was evident in the past with this fishery. Today, it is much tamer and more upgraded. You are seeing more higher-end restaurants starting to develop, for example,” he said.



    “We also have a fair amount that come in the early spring and April to see steelhead trout — which is a migratory form of rainbow trout — return to the river and hatchery,” Verdoliva said.


    In between those times, there is a “pretty steady flow of visitors but not the masses of people” seen in the fall, he added.


    Verdoliva said over the past 10 years, people traveling to the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks have visited the facility. Or, bus tours make it a stop on their itineraries.


    “We have an inflow of people coming all the time,” Verdoliva said.


    During other parts of the year, “we get tremendous amounts of school groups coming when schools are open, which is a wonderful educational opportunity not only for the kids, but for us. We get to let them know what we do, why we do it and how important the environments of the Salmon River, Lake Ontario and the tributaries are,” Verdoliva said.


    During the off-season, it is key to make guests aware of the other more active parts of the season and hope they return during that time.


    “It’s a destination point for people from around the globe, especially when we’re harvesting eggs and there are large fish in the facility,” he added.


    “They come to see big fish. One of the things we deal with in the summer is we don’t have big fish,” said Verdoliva, noting now is the spawning process where eggs are taken from female fish and fertilized by sperm from male fish.



    Bonding experience: Verdoliva and Kielbasinski addressed the key issue of creating the next generation of sports anglers.


    “If you look at the demographics, the population has aged. I go to lots of fishing meetings, and mostly everybody is older, although there are some young people,” he said.


    The hatchery offers programs for children, women and veterans.


    Verdoliva said in a changing world, there are many one-parent families. “When we do programs for kids, we really specify that we want both the parent and child to participate,” he said. “We want them to participate and build a culture around fishing as a great recreational activity.”


    “Looking at it long term, there are not as many people hunting and fishing and doing those kind of recreational activities. Kids are sitting in their rooms playing video games,” Verdoliva said.


    Most fishermen who frequent the area are from metropolitan areas, and when they bring their kids, they get to experience a natural environment.


    “Hopefully, that will grow and continue and their kids will then come back with them later on down the road,” Verdoliva added.


    “You do see more people coming up to go fishing that are also bringing their families. Some family members may not at that point be involved in the fishing part of it, but they do take part in some other activities. There’s more of that occurring,” he added.


    Oswego County offers an array of interesting natural resources, such as the 110-foot Salmon River Falls just down the road from the hatchery.


    The largest demographic growth in fishing right now is women.


    That is an interesting trend, particularly since the fishery and related recreational activities have been predominately male oriented in the past, Verdoliva said.


    “I think it’s really important to get women involved, particularly if they are single parents. Somebody has to get the kids out there fishing. If we can get women involved, more than likely they are going to take their kids,” Verdoliva said.


    Keys to future success: In order to achieve success in the years to come, continued high-level maintenance as well as modernization needs to take place, Kielbasinski said.


    “I think this piece of state infrastructure has suffered the fate of so many other things as far as deferred maintenance over time,” he noted.


    Proper staffing involving quality individuals trained to handle modern hatchery processes will also be key, he added.


    Kielbasinski said through state water recycling initiatives, new systems may allow the hatchery to raise the same amount of fish or more with less water.


    On average, the hatchery uses a water flow of approximately 10,000 gallons per minute from wells and a local reservoir.


    “When this fishery started back in the late ‘60s to the present day, there’s been great changes in the ecology of the lake in particular, and also in the way that management has looked at it,” Verdoliva said.


    “Back in the ‘60s, there was a huge abundance of forage in the lake and nothing to feed on it,” said Verdoliva, noting the prevailing thought was some or most of the streams would never be able to produce fish on their own.


    “It was felt that you can control and manage the lake by how many fish you stocked,” he said.


    “No one knew 20-to-25 years later that zebra mussels, quagga mussels, gobies and other invasive species would get into the lake and change the ecology, forage base and productivity of the lake,” Verdoliva said. “Nobody assumed that places like the Salmon River might produce literally millions of wild fish on top of the hatchery stock.”


    Verdoliva said there is a vast array of agencies — such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the province of Ontario — that are constantly doing research, particularly on the lake.


    “They are looking year in and year out on what the forage base is and making sure there is enough food out there for the fish that we are stocking as well as wild fish in the system,” Verdoliva said.


    “The goal is to maintain the quality and quantity that we have come to expect,” Verdoliva said.


    Among the five Great Lakes, Lake Ontario has been able to maintain the largest-sized fish and largest quantity of Pacific Salmon.


    Meanwhile, the upper Great Lakes have struggled, Verdoliva noted.


    “Lake Ontario has been able to — through really good long-term management — sustain the fisheries we have known,” he said. “One of our management goals is to maintain the forage base so that it can sustain trophy Pacific salmon.”


    “A lot of times, the general public — especially the angling public — believes that the more fish you stock, the better fishing is going to be. However, it’s not that. It’s how many fish survive and return to the fishery,” Verdoliva said.