Berkshire National Fish Hatchery
Volunteers work to preserve indigenous fish habitats
By Michael Kelly
It’s all about the water. At the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery (BNFH) in Hartsville, a hamlet of New Marlborough, Mass., 14 miles from Norfolk’s Village Green, 200 gallons a minute of pure 45-degree water from a deep underground aquifer course through 148 acres of protected woodlands, creating an ideal ecosystem for fish cultivation.
Native brood stocks of mostly lake trout are bred, hatched and nurtured at the BNFH before being trucked in insulated fiberglass tanks to the Lower Great Lakes to replenish fish habitats endangered by commercial overfishing and pollution. Part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) national network of 35 fish hatcheries, and one of just four in New England, BNFH is the only one in the country run entirely by volunteers.
In 1914, trout fisherman John Sullivan Scully donated his Berkshire forestland in the Konkapot River watershed to the federal government to establish a hatchery for aquaculture research. It became part of the national hatchery network founded in 1871 to address the ‘urgent need to restore degraded fish habitats and supplement declining native stocks of coastal and lake food fish through fish propagation’. Currently, 40 percent of North American fisheries are endangered and 700 species of fish are imperiled. As part of this ongoing effort to stabilize fish populations, every state maintains its own fish hatcheries, of which Connecticut has three.
After 80 years of successfully breeding and hatching trout, salmon and small mouth bass, the Hartsville hatchery was closed in 1994 due to federal budget cuts. In 1999, a grassroots coalition of local fisherman formed the Berkshire Hatchery Foundation and signed a unique Memorandum of Understanding with the USFWS authorizing volunteers to reopen the hatchery with their guidance. Since then lake trout (salvelinus namaycush) raised at BNFH have played an important role in reestablishing fish habitats, achieving an exceptional success ratio of spawned to hatched fish.
A recent effort involving the BNFH to reintroduce salmon to the Connecticut River failed due to lack of federal funding. In addition to the lake trout program, the BNFH raises brook trout (salvelinus fontinalis) to stock local streams and rivers and donate to fishing clubs for public fishing derbies. Last year, BNFH supplied a Maine Micmac tribe with 800 pounds of lake trout that was used in ceremonies honoring the tribe’s sacred history of fishing.
During the spawning season every autumn, male lake trout chase females which, in their fervor, lay up to 1,000 eggs, scattering them in the water where males fertilize them with their milt. Ignored by their parents in the wild, up to 95 percent of the eggs are eaten by predators or killed by pollution. At BNFH the eggs are harvested and transferred to incubation trays in a controlled indoor environment. Damaged or dead eggs, called kelt, are culled while healthy eggs are monitored and painstakingly counted to calculate propagation success rates.
When the eggs hatch into larvae after four or five months, they feed off their own yolk sacs. Lake trout can live up to 20 years, but are slow growing—reaching sexual maturity when they are six to eight years old. As they grow at BNFH they are moved by size and age into a series of 3,500-gallon pools covered by rounded canvas domes, and are fed diets depending on their age. On any given day, there are close to 100,000 fish swimming in these pools and adjacent raceways. At some point between nine and 18-months of age, the trout are shipped to the Great Lakes where their survival rate is high.
The BNFH gets funding from the federal government and employs a Fish and Wildlife fish biologist, but is always in need of donations and volunteers. They hold a festive LobsterFest fundraiser every August at the hatchery. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., a volunteer or fish biologist is always on site to give guided tours. Visitors may also take self-guided tours using maps and brochures available at a kiosk, and nearly eight miles of verdant trails are open to the public for hiking, snow shoeing and cross country skiing. Once a month, in-season, BNFH hosts fishing derbies for kids under 13 at the lower pond on Hatchery Road. Kids are also welcome to fish there, but they must go to the office beforehand to obtain a permit. For more information on the BNFH, visit www.berkfish.com.
Photos by Michael Kelly.