April 22, 2020
Randy Zellers Assistant Chief of Communications
HOT SPRINGS — Just as Arkansans have been able to enjoy most outdoor activities during the current coronavirus emergency, most conservation professionals have been able to perform their job duties with some creative thinking and modifications to their routine. Workers at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s five fish hatcheries, however, have not been as fortunate.
Most jobs at the AGFC can be carried out with little contact among workers. Wildlife surveys, habitat maintenance and most fisheries fieldwork can be carried out individually or in open spaces that enable adequate distance between workers. Working on a hatchery is different, especially during spawning seasons when hatchery staff spends hours every day catching, transporting and monitoring fish in both wild locations and on each hatchery’s ponds.
“There are some fisheries projects, conducted at the hatcheries and by management staff, that require many people to come together to get things done,” said Tommy Laird, assistant chief of fisheries over the AGFC’s fish culture section. “During some of these activities, it’s just impossible to practice safe social distancing. Because of this, these activities were deemed too risky for the health of our staff, their families and their communities.”
One of the annual projects that had to be canceled was the collection and spawning of striped bass to stock Arkansas lakes this year.
“Catching and handling those large fish, spawning them and monitoring their offspring require many hands,” Laird said. “And there’s only a short window when the fish are moving to spawn where we can accomplish hatchery spawning techniques. We know it’s not going to be popular with our avid striped bass anglers, but we have to cancel this year’s project with the timing of the coronavirus protocols.”
The original goal for this year’s striped bass project was to produce 515,000 fingerling striped bass to be stocked in Beaver Lake, Norfork Lake and Lake Ouachita. With the cancellation of the project, these lakes will not receive any striped bass this year. Hybrid striped bass production also will be canceled for this year, as striped bass are required to create these fish. However, only DeGray Lake near Arkadelphia receives hybrid striped bass, and 40,200 were scheduled to be stocked in 2020.
“We don’t anticipate the loss of one year class to have a dramatic impact on these fisheries,” Laird said.
AGFC hatcheries are still working, but stockings for derbies have been suspended until the concerns for coronavirus have passed as well.
“The minimum number of participants for a derby to have before we will stock is 50 people,” Laird said. “That’s far above any recommended gathering size, so we cannot support those sort of activities until the threat to public safety has passed.”
Largemouth bass production at the hatcheries, however, has remained on track.
“We’ve been able to produce more than 1.2 million fry at our (William H.) Donham hatchery in Corning, which is twice the target goal for northern-strain largemouth bass for the year,” Laird said. “And Florida largemouth production has stayed on track this spring as well. We hope the coronavirus crisis has passed before the bulk of our catfish and bass stockings take place, but we just have to keep our fingers crossed.”