As COVID-19 restrictions start easing up, the volunteers at the Almaguin Community Hatchery Program (ACHP) in Magnetawan hope they can again start having public tours of the facility and explain how they regularly help stock Ahmic Lake with walleye. Originally located in the basement of the local museum, the old facility could not be cleaned and sanitized from year-to-year. John Hetherington, president of the local hatchery program, says as a result, a new mobile hatchery was conceived, designed and built using a re-circulating water system. The re-circulating design gives the volunteers complete control over the water conditions which include the temperature, oxygen content, water acidity and disease control. “This system also allows us to match the water temperature of the Magnetawan River when the fry are being released,” Hetherington said. The mobile hatchery can be taken anywhere in Ontario. ACHP acquired the new hatchery in 2020 thanks to funding from Cabela's, the former Bass Pro Shops, and Hetherington says as far as the group is aware, it's the only kind of hatchery “that we know of in Ontario.” Hetherington says the Magnetawan River is one of the strongest fisheries in the Almaguin area and Ahmic Lake is part of that river system. However, in the 1980s a noticeable drop in the walleye population began to take place in Ahmic Lake and Hetherington says the hatchery was developed and created by local residents to try to help reverse this trend. The former Ministry of Natural Resources gave the newly formed group permission to take walleye from the river in order to spawn them, and then the mature fish along with their young were put back in the river. The operation grew and, although it's gone through ups and downs over the years, it has been successful over the long run. Hetherington says in nature the female walleye have a very small chance of seeing their eggs fertilized because the river is constantly flowing and the male sperm have only one minute to come into contact with the egg once it's released. After about 60 seconds the hole in the egg that the sperm swims through starts to close to protect the egg and it's a process that's over in just two minutes. “That closure is to prevent any disease, bacteria or insects from getting into the egg,” Hetherington said. “Plus we're talking about a very short period of time. So you can imagine in a swiftly flowing river just how difficult it is for the sperm to find that egg and get the job done.” Hetherington says while the eggs and sperm in the hatchery don't face the water flow issue, they still endure the same time constraints for the sperm to enter the egg before the closing process starts and ends in just minutes. In nature, while only 1.5 to two per cent of the eggs end up hatching, because of the controlled conditions in the hatchery a higher fertility rate is achieved, resulting in 90 to 95 per cent of those fertilized eggs hatching. “We produced more fish from the same number of eggs than can be done in nature,” Hetherington said. “We make a positive contribution.” Although COVID-19 has prevented the public from seeing the new hatchery so far during 2021, it didn't stop the volunteers from releasing about 1.6 million hatchlings earlier in the year. It's not fully known why the walleye population began dropping several decades ago but there is no shortage of theories. Hetherington says some people believe global warming has impacted the walleye population. Walleye are a cold-water fish, and when the water temperature starts rising, walleye suffer and will eventually be replaced by warm-water species like bass and pike. Another theory blames the black crappy for the walleye population decline. Walleye feed on smelt but the crappy eats both young smelts and young walleye. “They are a major predator of walleye in any body of water they are in,” Hetherington said. Hetherington says the crappy population has grown in Ahmic Lake “which has been tough on the walleye fry.” Hetherington says even though the ACHP can release as many as 1.6 million hatchlings “just like in Mother Nature, not all these fry are going to make it by any stretch.” There's a delicate balance to the young fry surviving shortly after they hatch and it has nothing to do with them being food for other fish. When the fry hatch, Hetherington says they have their egg sack attached to them which they can feed off for three to five days. Once in the water, they continue feeding off the egg sack but also begin looking for plankton which is their primary food in the early stages of their development. Hetherington says this is why the delicate balance comes into play. He says the plankton also have to hatch within a prescribed period so they're available as food for the walleye fry. “If they (plankton) don't hatch at the right time, our fry starve to death,” Hetherington says. Hetherington says the hatchery didn't get to operate last year when the pandemic first struck. But this year, after developing safety protocols and getting a verbal okay from the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, the volunteers have been at the hatchery carrying out work. For now, public access remains prohibited, but Hetherington is optimistic that restriction may be lifted sometime this summer.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget