Hatchery stands empty; staff travels to Spirit Lake

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The Guttenberg aquarium usually opens each year in May, but its opening may be delayed this year because staff who normally fill the tanks with fish caught while netting northern pike will be helping with walleye netting in Spirit Lake. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

After over 40 years of hatching northern pike, the Guttenberg hatchery is empty this spring. The clear tubes and tanks that have held thousands of tiny fry are dry, and as a consequence, the aquarium in Guttenberg is too. 

“Typically we’d probably have babies on board right now,” said Kevin Hanson, DNR Fisheries Technician in Guttenberg. “We had that warm spell and the water came up, and that’s the perfect combination.”

Due to budget cuts and staff reductions, all northern pike hatching has been relocated to Spirit Lake this year. Hanson isn’t sure if the situation is permanent. Along with six other crews, he and fisheries biologist Karen Osterkamp will soon depart for Spirit Lake to help the large hatchery there net walleye.

Fishermen can rest assured that the northern pike population in the area is still very strong. “The one thing that does suffer is that since we hatched pike for 40-plus years, we have a long term data set on our pike netting and hatching. We’ll no longer have that.”

Educational opportunities are also being missed because Guttenberg will not serve as a hatchery this spring. “It’s always been a really good teaching tool to take the embryo as it’s developing, put it under a microscope and let the kids see,” said Hanson. “We’ve had people stop by yearly, and in fact a guy from out of state called a couple of months ago to set up a day he could bring his child to see the hatchery. Visiting school groups will also have to be cancelled.” 

When Hanson and Osterkamp were out netting for pike each spring, they caught many of the fish that ended up in the aquarium. Now, the pair will have to wait until they return from Spirit Lake to begin fishing – so there may be a delay in opening the aquarium this year. 

While locally the Guttenberg office is known as a hatchery, Hanson and Osterkamp only spend one month of each year hatching fish. Over the past several years, the state has scaled back on what they’ve asked the Guttenberg hatchery to produce. “We’re a management office, not a hatchery, but we’ve been an extra source for northern pike – an extra basket for the eggs. More and more that’s been taken on by Spirit Lake,” Hanson explained. “We used to be the main supplier for many of the rivers, and Spirit Lake did many of the lakes. They have a much larger facility. Now, most of what we would stock would be along the river and requests in this area.”

In spite of the small size of Guttenberg’s hatchery, the long-term hatch success was an impressive 65%. “We’ve always maintained that since we’re such a small office, we’ve run this pretty cheaply and efficiently for so long that it’s been a good thing. We’ve always been really productive, and people from other hatcheries have come down to watch us and see what we’re doing differently to get better success,” Hanson told The Press. 

“The Upper Mississippi is the best fishery in the state.  In terms of the diversity and quality, what we have here is unmatched,” said Hanson. He and Osterkamp’s dedication and efficiency coupled with the existence of the public aquarium make the Guttenberg hatchery a unique and valuable resource.

After Hanson and Osterkamp return from Spirit Lake, they will perform the annual ritual of waking the alligator snapping turtle: turning on lights in the aquarium, pouring fresh water into the turtle tank, and bringing in fresh food. In the past, that food has been caught while netting northern pike. This year, in the absence of the hatch, it will come from special trips made specifically for catching fish to fill the aquarium. 

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