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.