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Old Palestine hatchery still serves purpose

ELIZABETH - When people think "fish hatchery," they tend to think of water-filled concrete raceways and fancy buildings filled with high-tech egg incubators.  

By that measure, West Virginia's Palestine Hatchery hardly seems like a hatchery at all. Hardly any concrete can be seen. The few raceways that exist are elevated troughs fashioned from stainless steel. Only its ponds, arranged side-by-side along the banks of the Little Kanawha River, give the slightest hint that fish might be raised there.

Despite its unassuming appearance, the Palestine facility plays a vital role in the Division of Natural Resources' ability to grow bass, walleye, catfish, muskellunge and other warm-water fish species.

"It's important to us for several reasons," said Chris O'Bara, the DNR's fisheries research supervisor. "It allows us to grow more fish, to grow different species than we otherwise might be able to, and gives us flexibility as to what we grow, when we grow it and how we grow it."

That's a significant change of heart from 2001, when DNR officials wondered if they should close the aging facility.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just finished construction on the state-of-the-art Apple Grove Hatchery in Mason County, and corps officials were ready to hand over the keys to the DNR. Because Apple Grove was so much larger than Palestine, and could grow so many more fish, DNR administrators considered closing the 60-year-old Wirt County facility.

Bret Preston, the DNR's assistant chief in charge of fisheries, remembers what happened.

"We were talking with [agency officials from] other states about the new hatchery, and we mentioned that we might want to close the old one," Preston recalled. "They told us to be wary about decommissioning a site."

The DNR brain trust ultimately decided to keep Palestine open, and today they're happy they did.

"We found that some species of fish do better in Apple Grove's [plastic] lined ponds, and that some species do better in Palestine's earthen ponds," O'Bara said. "For example, hybrid striped bass and walleyes do great in lined ponds, but muskies do much better in earthen ponds."

Keeping both hatcheries open also gave DNR officials something they'd never had before - extra space.

"If we had one hatchery or the other, we wouldn't have the flexibility we enjoy right now," O'Bara said. "Having two facilities has allowed us to experiment with different strains of walleye, to grow [larger-sized] muskie fingerlings, and to start growing blue catfish. Without the extra space, we couldn't raise the number of fish we do today."

Rodney Null, assistant manager at Palestine, said Apple Grove's presence gave Palestine the freedom to concentrate on the species that do better there.

"They took over the walleye and hybrid striper production, and that has allowed us to do more muskies, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and catfish," Null said. "That, in turn, has benefited the fishermen of West Virginia because two hatcheries can grow a lot more fish than one hatchery can."

The ponds at Palestine also accommodate paddlefish, a plankton-feeding species that, until the DNR began growing them, had all but disappeared from Mountain State waters. The presence of plankton in Palestine's waters keep help keep food costs to a minimum. Most of the fish hatched there feed on plankton while they're very young, and the plankton allows Null and his technicians to raise minnows to feed the hatchery's older fish.

Operating an aging facility isn't without headaches, and at age 70-plus, Palestine causes more than a few. Its water comes from the Little Kanawha, which often runs muddy for weeks at a time.

Null and his crew try to minimize strain on the hatchery's 50-year-old main pump by running it only when the river is running clear. Sometimes, though, they have no choice but to take in muddy water, which strains the pump and clogs the hatchery's plumbing with sediment.

"Our biggest problem is old, deteriorated water lines," Null said. "We did a big pond renovation about five years ago. Basically we cleaned out the pond bottoms and put in new water lines and drain lines. That helped matters a lot."

Null said the good thing about working with antiquated technology is that most of the problems are pretty straightforward.

"When something breaks, it's usually pretty easy to fix," he added.

The hatchery's low-tech nature also helps it keep a low profile. Trout hatcheries, with their crystal-clear waters, tend to attract scads of sightseers. Null said Palestine rarely gets visitors.

"The ponds are murky, so there isn't much to see," he said. "Sometimes in the spring, we spawn fish in the hatchery building, but that's about the only time of year we're doing anything people would want to watch."

There might not be much to watch, but O'Bara said there's plenty for anglers to enjoy.

"Because of Palestine, fishermen are seeing more fish and better-quality fish," he said. "And they're seeing some species, like paddlefish and blue catfish, that we would never have been able to get involved with."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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