19 June 2021

The Great Catfish Harvest

Written by: Peyton Wilson

Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery (IDNFH) is home to hundreds of thousands of catfish, several endangered aquatic species, and, more recently, me. I drove from San Diego to Burnet,Texas for the summer to preserve endangered freshwater mussels endemic to central Texas. Freshwater mussel conservation is my primary project out here and the strange shellfish are more interesting than one might think. The mussels deserve a blog post of their own, but for now, I want to describe one of the more unexpected duties I have ended up doing here that definitely was not on the internship description: Catfish harvesting. 

The purpose of the harvest is to load a certain amount of catfish from a hatchery pond into a truck, so they can be driven and dropped off in a lake or pond in the area that wants to augment their fish population. IDNFH has many large ponds(in background of attached picture), all stocked with catfish. Various snakes, frogs, and some native fish that have infiltrated the facility make an occasional appearance in the water as well. But Catfish is the main commodity, and rounding them up is no easy task, though it is a bit fun. The first step in the harvest is to corral all the fish in the pond to one corner, so they can be more easily scooped out. The hatchery has several long rectangular nets that span the length of the pond to accomplish this task. We slide the net around the outer perimeter of the pond, then slowly bring it into one corner, making sure to keep the bottom edge of the net at the bottom of the pond so no fish can slip under as we confine them to a smaller space. The nets are so big, and the fish so numerous and powerful, that a tractor must be used to pull the net around the pond for this task. Once the fish are confined to a corner, we take a smaller long rectangular net, bring it around the perimeter of the space we confined the fish to, bring the net up to the surface, and voila, we’ve got hundreds of catfish in a large net that can be more easily scooped out. The fish are scooped with handheld nets into a crane, which weighs the fish, and dumps them into a water filled trailer tank pulled by a truck. Many scoops and crane loads later, the desired amount of fish are in the trailer and are ready for mobilization. 

The work is physical and involves a lot of team work. I have come to enjoy the stimulating process, especially in the Texas summer heat where the most desirable place to be is in the water cooling off. I also like that we are providing a service to people who really need these fish. A large portion of our harvests head to native tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, to stock their reservoirs for fishing. Though nothing could make up for the injustices inflicted on indigenous peoples by the United States, it feels right to contribute to a purposeful service for the tribes from our federal government. Fish harvesting is a skill I never expected to develop while I spend my summer here, and I doubt I will ever need it again unless I end up working for a hatchery one day. But I am glad I get to experience a task very unlike any other, where I get to be active, bond with my co-workers, and have some fun stories to bring back to my friends and family.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery

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