National News

A Fish Hatchery In Texas Has Brought Life To a Nearly Extinct Species

Posted July 1

— Down in a little valley on the banks of the Colorado River near Burnet, Texas lies 167 acres that from a distance seems to be nothing more than a fish farm. In truth, it is a fish farm. It grows channel catfish that go to economically and otherwise benefit Native American Tribes in the American West. The same catfish also make the short trip up the road to nearby Fort Hood, Texas, where members of America's Armed Forces and their families use them for sport fishing. But with a look deeper inside this fish hatchery you'll find a more magical work in progress. A work that is perhaps more vital than anything that happens here at the Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery. A small band of folks from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service work along side a dedicated group of volunteers that are lovingly called "Friends." These dedicated servants work together, arm in arm at the task of harboring life for a species of fish that was almost all together gone.

"This place is like a Noah's Ark", says Deputy Hatchery Manager Scott Walker who is one of only eight full time employees working at the hatchery.

A Texan through and through, Walker takes great pride in the work that is done here and he should be. This is home to a species of fish called the Clear Creek Gambusia.

This tiny, minnow like fish lives it's entire life cycle in a tributary of the San Saba River known as Clear Creek. These fish, are what Hatchery Manager Jeff Conway calls them "little miracles." They are also part of what is known as the "Class of '67", a group of animals added to the endangered species list during that year. This particular Gambusia has fallen victim to a number of threats including damming, relocation issues which led to a change in it's climate and nutria damage. But working together the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and The Rio Grande Fish Recovery Team, devised a plan to bring this fish that was almost gone forever, back to life.

A series of old dams located at the furthest most headwaters of Clear Creek have contributed to the demise of the pure strain Clear Creek Gambusia.

"We sent some off for testing and discovered through their DNA, that these are pure strain Clear Creek Gambusia", says Walker.

"That is pretty amazing", he says.

Back in the 1970's, it was noted that hybridization between the Western Mosquitofish and the Clear Creek Gambusia was becoming a major problem for this delicate species.

"If they hybridized, they become only another minnow", says Walker as he points out ten new Clear Creek Gambusia that were born the night before our visit.

However, it was back then in the 1970's that a major dam restoration project was undertaken, which had a positive effect on the reduction in hybridization with the Western Mosquitofish. But because of unforeseen circumstances, further implementation of the dam restoration projects were ceased all together in that area. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service on all levels has been working to rebuild relationships and forge a permanent bond with persons along the creek in order to continue the positive work. Albeit a slow process, the recovery program is working.

But aside from that, in a small white building nestled in a corner of the Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, work is being done to preserve this endangered species. Upon entering you must walk through a rubber matt that has been filled with sanitizer. But once inside, you are greeted by a series of fish tanks that bring new life into existence for the Clear Creek Gambusia.

"Fish are really susceptible to disease, which is why we do this", says Walker who is proud as a new father when he enters this building.

"To me there is no place like this on earth", he says.

There are over 800 Clear Creek Gambusia here in this building ranging in age from newborn to full maturity.

"Our goal", Walker says "is to get them to a point that they can survive and thrive in the wild."

With the continued hard work of only eight staff members and a band of dedicated volunteers, that goal may one day be realized.

With all that has been said about the Clear Creek Gambusia, there is still more work being done with another species, one that is vital to all rivers and lakes, the freshwater mussel.

In blue bins that are filled with small amounts of filtered water from the Colorado River, live these ecologically vital mussels. Here they have species that are listed as "candidates" to become endangered or may already actually be endangered. Mussels with funny sounding names such as the Texas Fatmucket or the Pimpleback live in these bins. Names that to most people would not ring a bell, but to conservationists and ecologists, they are household names.

This is a pilot program of sorts to see if they can be bred in captivity and returned to the rivers and lakes that so desperately need them.

"What we have here is a unique place that if people understood, they would appreciate", Walker says. And with infrastructure being made to house volunteer workers and researchers, there will be more accommodating space for this work to continue for generations to come.

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