Just Keep Swimming
At the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery, researchers and conservationists aim to protect marine life and habitats
Story by Sarah Vaughan | Photos courtesy of MDWFP
There’s quite a bit of truth in the old Chinese proverb, “Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime;” but there’s also something to be said for, “Teach a man to fish and he’ll endanger an entire species.” What was in the old days a source of sustenance is now a form of recreation, and with time, our natural food sources are being depleted. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species are possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.
With so many endangered fish species, what are we to do? The answer lies just west of Enid Lake on 58 acres of land leased from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery, where researchers and conservationists work side by side to protect endangered species and endangered habitats, learn more about fish diseases and how to prevent them, and restock state water sources of their depleted stock of marine life.
The North Mississippi Fish Hatchery is comprised of a state-of-the-art facility, complete with a tank room, wet lab, office, staff rooms, maintenance shop, 16 1-acre production ponds, a settling pond, and a residence. The hatchery building houses 40 incubation jars and 36 holding/rearing tanks. Water used by the hatchery is supplied by two groundwater wells and a pipeline from Enid Lake. Water is produced through a system of filters, heaters, chillers, and degassing chambers.
“We breed an average of 10 to 12 species a year at our state-of-the-art facility,” says Emily-Jo Wiggins, Director of the Education Center at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery. “While we breed mostly sport fish, our biologists also determine what species are needed and where, and we then stock the fish species that are needed in particular locations. We also work species of special concern that are in danger or those that have a great need. This year we bred Southern walleye as well as white crappie, black crappie, Magnolia hybrid crappie, largemouth bass, and others.”
Every single fish raised at the hatchery is transferred to a public water system in order to prevent state ponds, lakes, and rivers from being depleted of their natural wildlife. Providing a suitable spawning habitat is also crucial to rebuilding native stocks, as it would be pointless to transfer fish to an unlivable or unsuitable environment. Essentially, the goal of fish hatcheries is to work themselves out of a job.
“Our fisheries bureau supplies fish to augment or enhance fish populations in Mississippi waters,” says Wiggins. “This provides several benefits, not only to the environment and ecosystem but also for anglers' recreation.”
There are currently 288 species of freshwater fish found in Mississippi, including the state fish, the largemouth bass. In addition to protecting the livelihood and habitats of these 288 species, the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery is also concerned with protecting species unique to our state. “There are three fish species found only within the state of Mississippi and nowhere else in the world,” says Dennis Riecke, a biologist working with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. “These include bayou darter, found in the Bayou Pierre system south of Vicksburg, and Yazoo shiner and Yazoo darter, both found in the streams of the Yazoo River drainage in Northwest Mississippi.”
One fish in particular, the Magnolia crappie,is particularly vulnerable to extinction, as it’s a sterile breed. “The Magnolia crappie is a triploid hybrid cross between a black-striped black crappie and a white crappie,” says Riecke. “The eggs and milt are stripped and hand-mixed, and the eggs are placed in a pressure chamber causing triploidy, the development of three sets of chromosomes. The resulting fish is sterile because it has three sets of chromosomes. Because they can’t reproduce, they have been stocked into some smaller water bodies like Lake Charlie Capps, where fertile crappie would overproduce and few would grow to a harvestable size due to a lack of enough food.”
Visitors may view spawning activities from the observation area in the hatchery building, and educators have many opportunities at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery and Visitor Education Center. Educational groups have taken advantage of the guided tours, programs, hands-on activities, and workshops provided by the VEC. For teachers planning a field trip, the facility offers activities and tours for all ages and abilities. At the Visitor Education Center, educators of all grade levels and subject areas have had the opportunity to participate in teacher workshops.
The North Mississippi Fish Hatchery Visitor Education Center also hosts youth art contests through the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Foundation (MWFPF). From clay sculptures to oil paintings, young artists in four different age categories create illustrations of native Mississippi species. The winners in each category receive a certificate, and their work is proudly displayed at the Education Center and in the Mississippi Outdoors magazine.
“Many people who visit the education center are surprised to see just how much work goes into managing our waterways in Mississippi,” says Wiggins. “We manage over 250,000 acres of water in the state. Quite a lot of effort goes into making our waterways not only good habitat areas but also terrific fishing for anglers, both in state and out of state.”