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MN announces plans to close hatchery used to raise trout, salmon

Fisheries technician Dave Beron feeds young Kamloops rainbow trout at the French River Hatchery near Duluth on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Don Pereira talks Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 about the decision to close the French River Hatchery in front of tanks used to raise Kamloops rainbow trout at the facility near Duluth. The coldwater hatchery needs $8 million in capital investments and uses 10 percent of the energy used by the DNR statewide. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Merle Siemsen (left), of Hermantown and other anglers fish for Kamloops rainbow trout on Lake Superior near the mouth of the French River on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 10, 2016. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

DULUTH — The French River Hatchery, which has raised trout and salmon on the North Shore since 1976, will be closed soon, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday, Nov. 10.

The hatchery is in need of about $8 million in repairs to upgrade failing equipment, DNR officials said. In addition, the hatchery always has been expensive to operate because water from Lake Superior must be warmed in order to raise fish there. The hatchery consumes 10 percent of the energy used by the entire agency statewide, DNR officials said.

That energy inefficiency, coupled with the need for upgrading the hatchery, make it necessary to close the hatchery, said DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira.

"This hasn't been a hasty decision," Pereira said. "We've been processing this for a number of years. It's a difficult decision."

The four employees at the hatchery will be reassigned to the DNR's Duluth area fisheries office and the Lake Superior area fisheries office, both located at French River. Rearing of trout will be shifted to another DNR hatchery. The shutdown will be done in stages stretching into next year.

One of the primary functions of the French River Hatchery has been to raise a domesticated strain of rainbow trout called Kamloops rainbows. Kamloops rainbows cannot reproduce in the lake.

Starting in 2017, all of the Kamloops rearing will be done at the DNR's Spire Valley Hatchery near Remer, DNR officials said. About 92,500 Kamloops rainbow yearlings are stocked along the North Shore each summer. Some Kamloops rainbows already are being reared at Spire Valley, in addition to those at French River. The Spire Valley fish are stocked at a smaller size, however, and some don't get a chance to "imprint" on the water of North Shore streams. Anglers say fewer Spire Valley rainbows survive in Lake Superior and return to be caught.

"That's the biggest question with Spire Valley," Pereira acknowledged. "We do know the returns are less with smaller fish. ... It's an experiment."

Shorecasters fear the closure of the French River Hatchery eventually will mean a diminished fishery, with returns so low that anglers will cease targeting the fish or the DNR will quit stocking them entirely.

Anglers react

Ross Pearson of Kamloops Advocates was fishing for Kamloops rainbows near the mouth of the French River on Thursday. He has lobbied the DNR for years to continue raising Kamloops rainbows at the French River Hatchery.

"It's terrible," Duluth's Pearson said of the DNR's decision. "It means the end of an effective program. It's that simple. They made a business decision. I can't disagree with that. It was an expensive program."

DNR officials estimate that about 1,000 to 1,200 anglers regularly take part in the Kamloops shorecasting fishery, Pereira said. Just 4 percent of the Kamloops rainbows stocked in Lake Superior return to be caught by anglers, he said. Each Kamloops rainbow trout an angler catches costs about $200 to produce, according to the DNR.

Merle Siemsen, 79, of Hermantown also was fishing for Kamloops rainbows at the French River on Thursday.

"If they shut down the hatchery, it'll eliminate most of the shore fishing," Siemsen said.

Some days in the past, lots of fish — typically 5 to 8 pounds in size — were caught.

"In a really good year, you could witness on any day in October and November, 30 fish being caught," Pearson said. "That would last into April. The last 10 years, it hasn't been as good as that."

"We understand there's going to be a loss here for some anglers," the DNR's Pereira said. "It's going to be very hard to replace the grandeur of fishing along the shore of the largest lake in the world."

Lake trout restoration

The French River Hatchery was built originally to aid in the restoration of lake trout in Lake Superior, which at the time depended heavily on stocked fish. Today, wild lake trout have staged a recovery in Lake Superior, which means the agency no longer needs to stock the fish in the big lake. Lake trout have not been raised at the hatchery for many years.

Kamloops rainbows typically spend three or four years in the big lake before returning to rivers where they were stocked. They're available to shore anglers during fall, winter and spring months.

The French River Hatchery also maintains steelhead (rainbow trout) brood stock. That brood stock eventually will be moved to another hatchery so the DNR can continue its stocking of steelhead fry (tiny juveniles) in North Shore streams.

After it is eventually closed down, the hatchery probably will be converted to DNR offices or storage space, said Cory Goldsworthy, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor.