New Whiterocks Hatchery

New hatchery should produce more than 130,000 pounds of fish

Whiterocks -- When members of the Northeastern Regional Advisory Council and Utah Wildlife Board visited the Whiterocks State Fish Hatchery with employees from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently, most of them didn't recognize the place.

The old, dilapidated, white, wooden hatchery building built in 1923 was gone. So were the old office/storage building and three sets of old, crumbling, concrete raceways. In their place stood a large, modern concrete block building. They also watched as construction workers quickly worked to finish pouring new concrete raceways.

The $6 million construction project they saw was more than a face-lift*the entire system has been rebuilt.

"We will be able to triple our production," said Ron Morrill, who manages the UDWR hatchery near Whiterocks, about 30 miles northeast of Roosevelt.

"The old hatchery could raise 45,000 pounds of fish under prime conditions; the new one should produce over 130,000 pounds of fish," Morrill said. "There will be fewer outside raceways, but the new ones will be wider and better designed so they will have about the same amount of space, but they will raise more fish.

"It's in our new building, and some new technology, that we see the greatest changes."

New hatchery troughs
New troughs built at the Whiterocks Fish Hatchery

The new building contains a main room with 42 new troughs. There's enough space in the building that a truck can be driven into the center of it. This provides easy access to the troughs and makes it easier for hatchery personnel to move fish, equipment and other materials.

"Each of the new troughs is worth about six of the old ones, and there were only 12 troughs in the old building," Morrill said. "Another room contains water columns and trays for hatching eggs. The large interior bay will allow us to work on trucks and other equipment, and then we have an office space and a couple of small storerooms for fish food and other things. The bulk of our fish food will be stored in another storage facility close to the outside raceways."

The hatchery's improved technology includes an oxygenation system and baffles.

"The entire fish rearing facility is tied into an oxygenation system," Morrill said. "A major limitation to fish production is the amount of oxygen available in the water. The more fish, the more dissolved oxygen is needed. Our system will allow us to inject oxygen into the water to maintain the oxygen at a high level, which translates to healthier fish and increased production.

"Another improvement is the baffles, which direct water flow along the bottom to waste collection areas and then up over walls to spill into the next raceway holding area. The baffles will help increase oxygen levels while making it easier to remove waste and clean the troughs and raceways."

The Whiterocks hatchery is already raising some fish, and should be in full production by late spring 2007.

"We have some eggs and fry in the hatching area and troughs right now," Morrill said. "Currently, we are hatching out kokanee salmon eggs and raising rainbows, including some that are triploid to make them sterile. Eventually we could be raising rainbows, brook trout, kokanee and several strains of Colorado River cutthroat trout. Most of these will go to local waters, but some will be transported to other areas throughout the state.

"The construction on the main building is complete; we just need to put in some more screens and add a few other finishing touches," Morrill said. "The raceways should be poured by early next year. Then we'll finish up by filling in around the raceways and paving a parking lot around the buildings. We're at a projected rate of 98,000 pounds of fish this year, and will be able to raise over 130,000 once we are fully functional.

"With our increased production, we plan to hire another full-time employee and get a bigger fish hauling truck."

History of the Whiterocks Hatchery

Old hatchery
Old Whiterocks Hatchery raceways

In 1923, the state of Utah acquired a unique site near Whiterocks, about 30 miles northeast of Roosevelt. The springs at this site made it perfect for raising fish, and by the end of the year a hatchery building was constructed along with a set of rearing ponds. As time and funding permitted, three sets of concrete raceways were added. These raceways provided a more productive system than the earthen ponds that the hatchery began with.

From the early to mid-1900s, Whiterocks was a state-of-the-art facility. Fish eggs, gathered from around Utah and other parts of the Western states, were placed in trays where hatchery staff could watch them until they hatched into fry. The fry were first moved to the troughs inside the building, where they were fed a high protein diet of whatever meats the managers could find, including carp, roadkill and dead or old animals donated by local ranchers.

At first, managers stocked the fry into lakes and streams, but they soon learned that larger fish survived better, so managers began raising the fish longer. As the fish grew larger, they were moved to the outside raceways before being stocked into lakes and streams.

By the time Whiterocks was built, trucks had replaced horse-drawn carts as the preferred way to move fish. Fry and later fingerlings were placed in 10-gallon milk cans and were either driven directly to the water or to a trailhead, where they were taken to their final destination by foot or horseback. Most of today's 400 managed waters on the South Slope of the Uinta Mountains were originally stocked by horseback.

Old hatchery troughs
Old hatchery troughs

Hatchery managers also experimented to find better techniques to feed fish. Flour and other finely ground materials were added to the ground meats. This created a better nutritional mix. Eventually, managers at Utah's Glenwood State Fish Hatchery helped develop a completely dry food, which was easier to manage, store and feed to the fish. Today, the Whiterocks hatchery buys fish food from commercial companies that use some of the techniques and information originally developed in Utah's state fish hatchery system.

Stocking techniques also improved over time, with the equipment the hatchery staff used progressing from 10-gallon cans to trucks carrying huge tanks. The Whiterocks hatchery currently uses a truck with a single 400-gallon tank, but it also ships fish out on a UDWR truck equipped with four 400-gallon tanks.

The horses also have been replaced. In July, August and sometimes into September, hatchery personnel get up before dawn and load their trucks with small fingerlings. These fish trucks aren't heading to a lake or reservoir, though: they're going to meet a UDWR airplane equipped with a special tank.

Measured numbers of fingerlings and a limited amount of water are placed into one of several small compartments in the tank. The fingerlings and water are then flown to a high mountain lake or reservoir. Once the pilot arrives at the body of water, he lines his plane up with it, dives as close as safety allows and releases one or more compartments of fingerlings. Due to the relative shapes of water droplets and fingerlings, the water hits the surface first, creating splashes and waves that allow the fish to enter the water safely.

Managers at the Whiterocks hatchery continued to be innovative in other ways. These ways included experimenting with a water column, which helps provide oxygen while reducing the loss of eggs to fungus and other diseases. The hatchery's managers were often called upon to hatch and grow fish that had been difficult to raise in a hatchery situation.

However, while innovative methods for handling and raising eggs, fry and fingerlings helped improve production at the hatchery for almost 80 years, time had the final say. Concrete crumbled, wood rotted and pipes rusted, and the once modern hatchery needed to be replaced with a new, state-of-the-art facility.