State's largest fish hatchery set to expand

Published: Monday, December 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 10:03 p.m.
WITHLACOOCHEE STATE FOREST - In Florida, the largemouth bass is the king of freshwater game fish. The main prize in Florida's $2 billion a year freshwater fishing industry, the fish lures countless anglers out to rivers and lakes across the central and southern part of the state.
And since 1965, a one-story concrete block building and a grid of man-made ponds in the heart of the Withlacoochee State Forest has played a role in many of these fishing trips.
The Richloam Fish Hatchery has had to stock 100 to 120 bodies of water each year with aged equipment and in a cramped work space. Now, the south Sumter County hatchery, the largest in the state, is nearing the first phase of a planned $15 million expansion and upgrade.
"Those guys could raise fish in a cup of water," Ed Moyer, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Fisheries, said of the Richloam staff. "There's tons of experience down there. My guys could compete with anybody in the country when it comes to fish culture. We're just giving them better tools to do it. This is probably the biggest construction project that the division of fisheries has ever done."
In March, the $6 million first stage of work on the new Florida Bass Conservation Center will start with demolition of the nearly 40-year-old concrete block fish production and incubation center. By the fall of 2005, a new 30,000-square-foot two-story production and research facility will stand in its place.
Roaming between the ponds of Richloam in a pick-up truck, Rick Stout, the hatchery's supervisor, said the new facility will enhance stocking capabilities and aid research into disease, the use of artificial feed to accelerate fish growth and the purity of the Florida strain of black bass, which is typically larger than those found in other states.
"Our main focus point now is building on our ability to raise largemouth bass. In Florida that is the king of freshwater fishing." Stout said. "To do that requires an amazing amount of technology and we have that now."
When construction ends, the FWC has lofty annual production goals of 1.5 million fingerling bass one to 1 inches in size, one million advanced fingerling bass 4 inches in size, one million striped and sunshine bass fingerlings, three million bluegill and 250,000 subadult channel catfish, primarily for lakes in urban areas. FWC estimates the new production goal of 6.75 million fish is nearly triple the current annual average of 2.3 million.
Mike Allen, a professor in the University of Florida's department of fisheries and aquatic sciences, said the expansion is needed to stock lakes such as Lake Griffin and Lake Apopka which have seen habitat destroyed by pollutants, and Orange Lake, which has been drained repeatedly by a sinkhole in dry periods.
"This drought we just came through is a good argument for refurbishing the fish hatchery," Allen said. "Once the habitat returns, you can stock the lake."
While Allen studies the scientific aspect of fish hatcheries, Bob Wattendorf with the FWC focuses on the economic impact. Wattendorf said that freshwater fishing generates 19,000 jobs and $2 billion a year. About 75 percent of that money, he said, comes from largemouth bass fishing.
Moyer said another goal is to maintain the pure genetic strain of the Florida bass to bring in anglers and tourist dollars from out of state.
"Trophy bass attract people from all over the United States, certainly east of the Mississippi," he said.

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