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Belly up: FRC hatchery suffers mass die-off

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer
9/29/2010

Feather River College’s fish hatchery is the latest victim of budget woes, with a staff stretched to capacity and then some. When the word got out that hatchery manager Zach Parks had lost 49,900 of his recent delivery of 50,000 Department of Fish and Game fingerling (6-inch) trout, and had also lost four out of seven 15- to 20-year-old sturgeon, rumors started flying, and fingers started pointing.

Parks, in his six years running the hatchery, has turned it from a small “learning lab” into a “production level hatchery” that contracts with DFG to raise its fish, and does it all through grants and other self-funding measures said FRC president Dr. Ron Taylor.

At the end of August, Parks took delivery of the 50,000 DFG fish after putting Fish and Game off as long as possible.

He was still waiting for the maintenance crew to finish installation of a new, completely automated, self-regulating recycle system composed of tanks, a filtration system, an oxygen system, a water sterilization system and a dechlorination system.

It was all hooked up, he said, but the components weren’t calibrated correctly and they weren’t communicating properly. Parks had been asking maintenance to complete the job since December 2009.

The maintenance crew experienced losses through death and retirement. Then came the hiring freeze. After that, FRC took over the fitness center and the dorms, both in poor shape and needing a lot of work.

When Taylor sat down with Facilities Director Nick Boyd and Parks, he discovered each thought the other was getting back to the “experts” to learn how to balance the system.

First, when DFG brought the load of fish, it emptied them into the outdoor ponds, where Parks hoped to keep them since the new system wasn’t complete. But, a 10-inch diameter pipe dumping 50,000 fish, caused the silt on the bottom to roil to such a degree that it became “turbid and cloudy,” seriously affected the oxygen levels, and made it hard for the fish to breathe.

Parks turned on the aerator to the ponds and it failed.

In past years, there was a stream with enough spring water to feed the ponds.

In recent years, it has stopped flowing, and Parks has used artesian well water instead.

A contractor turned off the artesian well, which fed fresh, oxygenated, cold water to the ponds. Trout are especially sensitive to warmer, lower oxygen water.

When they started leaping out of the ponds by the hundreds, Parks knew something was seriously wrong, and he moved them to the tanks, determined to monitor chlorine levels by hand.

Several unique conditions caused chlorine levels to be different than Parks expected. He calculated the “dosing rate” of the dechlorinating agent and measured chlorine rates, which fluctuate constantly.

What Parks thinks happened — though he has no way to measure levels of the dechlorinating agent — is that there was less chlorine in the line, since students had just arrived and were using lots of water. That caused residual chlorine to be flushed from the pipes.

Parks believes less of the dechlorinating agent was used up by the chlorine. As a result, residual amounts built up. He not only couldn’t measure it, he also didn’t know it could have a residual effect — it had never been a problem in the past.

Parks believes the dechlorination overdose agent caused a severe drop in pH and ultimately killed the fish. Because they’d been moved twice in quick succession, the fish were already severely stressed and weakened.

The tragedy was personal for Parks, “The sturgeon really made me sick that they died,” and losing nearly all of the fish that DFG had entrusted to him “felt like a kick in the groin.”

Parks wanted FRC to know the hatchery is an important part of the campus. He would like, finally, to have a budget and not have to rely on grants. He’d like, perhaps most of all, for the college to understand that he has about 20 minutes to fix a problem when it occurs before his fish start to die.

One of the results of this tragedy is that at least some of Parks’ wishes might come true. Taylor was unaware of the problem until he received an e-mail that mentioned the loss of fish. He didn’t know about the maintenance problems. He has been quite aware of operations at the hatchery and just assumed others knew its value as well.

Taylor said that while some things seemed to converge to cause disaster, there are things he can change to ensure a situation like this doesn’t happen in the future: faulty equipment issue, better communication between departments and water source problems.

He understands now the need for “split second” response to hatchery problems. “It’s caused us to think long term ... to problem solve, and that will take awhile.”

As for a budget, Taylor acknowledges Parks has “done a good thing being so creative.” Longer term, Taylor will consider this possibility. In the short term, with the college asking the county for a nearly $5 million advance on taxes, it’s not possible.

Looking at the larger picture in trying times, Taylor said, it’s vital to understand the urgency of any request. “If you don’t know what the consequences might be, when you’re getting stretched from all sides, you have to make decisions based on what you know.”

Speaking directly to the failure in this particular situation, he said the loss involved both “loss of life in fish, and loss to a facility that’s a special, unique operation, and very important to us.”

Parks will now begin to find another source of fish — either from private vendors or from the DFG, though he’s unsure how the debacle will affect that relationship.

 


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