There’s a squirming school of walleye coming to a lake near you.
The Lost Horse Creek Wildlife Federation has set up a hatchery in Cochin on the shores of Lehman Creek where about 280,000 walleye eggs are incubating, waiting to hatch.
Brad Pattinson, president of Lost Horse Creek Wildlife Federation, used the word “cool” to describe the setup for the mini-walleye hatchery, which require a constant flow of running water.
A pump is set up in Lehman Creek and the water is pre-filtered out of the creek. It goes into a holding tank outside the hatchery, and the water runs down the system into a jar where the walleye eggs are located. It flows at three litres a minute and the incubation time can be anywhere from 10 to 21 days.
The water is treated once a day with 50 millilitres a day of a product called Formalin as part of the process.
“Judging by the separation in there now, they should be starting to hatch into little fish,” said Pattinson when the News-Optimist visited the operation last week. It was expected the fish might start to hatch sometime during this week or by this weekend, as temperatures had been warm.
Of the 280,000 eggs, it looked like there was about a 70 per cent incubation rate. Pattinson pointed to the eggs that were visibly moving around the bottom of the jar of water.
“These ones we know are turning into fish,” said Pattinson.
The others, floating at the top, look dead. Those eggs are siphoned off regularly and transferred into what Pattinson calls the “hospital jar,” just in case they do come around and turn into fish.
“If they’re still firm, they’re probably still okay,” said Pattinson of the eggs. He compares what the jar looks like to a “Guinness beer,” with several eggs floating at the top while the rest move around at the bottom.
When the fish hatch, they will be the size of ground pepper, Pattinson said — no more than a couple of millimetres.
The hatching process is expected to happen quickly over about three hours. The newborn fish will swim over into another tank, and eventually are to be transferred to a container that will be equipped with aquarium stone and a bottle of oxygen.
The fish are destined to be released in Little Loon Lake. There, further tests will be done to acclimatize the fish to the water and make sure the tank and the lake water are at equal temperatures. Once the temperatures are equal, the fish are released, Pattinson said.
The fish stocking is a once a year project, Pattinson said, so he’s urging anyone interested who wants to come up to Cochin and see the operation to do so quickly before the fish hatch.
The walleye eggs were picked up May 5 from Diefenbaker Lake. Every year the Ministry of Environment fisheries branch holds a spawn camp there for a couple of weeks. Biologists and staff live-capture the walleye and harvest the eggs.
About ten per cent of the fish released at Little Lonn will grow to a catchable size, said Pattinson. The other fish become part of the food chain and end up being eaten themselves by the other fish there.
Pattinson says the survival rate for the fish should be significantly higher than it would have been without the hatchery component of the process.
Little Loon is a good place for the fish to live, said Pattinson. But because Little Loon Lake is standing water it is no good as a place for walleye to reproduce, because walleye require running water for that to happen.
The hatchery at Cochin does the job, as a constant flow of running water goes into the jar containing the fish eggs and moving them around. All you need is enough for them to move, said Pattinson.
The idea for the mini-hatchery came from looking at the other hatcheries that were in operation. There’s a big one in Fort Qu’Appelle and another in Moose Jaw run by the Moose Jaw Wildlife Federation.
“They distribute their eggs sometimes into Buffalo Pound,” said Pattinson of the Moose Jaw operation. “Sometimes they take them into whichever reservoirs are located around there.”
Pattinson said that if they weren’t taking the eggs and running the mini-hatchery at Lehman Creek, the eggs would go to Fort Qu’Appelle and then be transported to Little Loon Lake.
“It’s better for the fish because the more you handle them the less likely it is they’ll survive, and it’s good for the taxpayer because we pick up the cost to go get them,” he said, referring to the wildlife federation’s efforts.
This is the first year the hatchery is in operation, but the idea has long been in the works. Originally they were going to have it operate last year, but the spawn camp at Diefenbaker Lake was flooded out with last year’s heavy spring runoff.
“So nobody got any eggs,” said Pattinson.
“We were ready last year,” he said. In fact, the hatchery at Cochin was designed to handle some three million eggs if all the jars had been installed for it. They could have had 16 jars of eggs, Pattinson noted.
The main hatchery had 18 million eggs, said Pattinson. Of those, Lost Horse Creek got 280,000 this year for its hatchery.
He says a core group of volunteers is involved in the operation, with constant monitoring required to make sure the process is running smoothly and that problems are quickly dealt with. That day, Pattinson noted volunteers noticed a minnow was in the system and briefly plugged up the water, so they had to deal with that situation.
Records are kept with reports provided to the environment ministry.
The cost of the mini-hatchery is around $3,500 to $4,000 and is paid for through the wildlife federation’s fundraising activities. Some of the components were donated, though the main tank had to be purchased.
“We improvised, like any non-profit group — you pull together what you can,” said Pattinson.
The efforts are also part of the process of education of the public by the wildlife federation, not just with respect to fish eggs but also the natural habitat in which fish live.
The hatchery location was once used by the Ministry of Enviroment to harvest white fish eggs out of Lehman Creek decades ago. The shoreline has since been restored to allow more small weed beds to pop up, allowing fish to survive. Visitors are able to see for themselves how important it is to keep a shoreline in as natural a state as possible.