Salisbury fish hatchery closing looms

SUPERVISOR BRETT LOWRY cleans up the fish holding tanks in the Salisbury Fish Culture Station in Salisbury. The hatchery, a tourist attraction itself, raises thousands and thousands of fish that are released into Vermont waters for fishermen to catch. Independent file photo/John S. McCright

SALISBURY — To the dismay of some anglers, state officials have proposed a plan to close a historic Vermont fish hatchery in Salisbury to cut costs within the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. 

The hatchery, called the Salisbury Fish Culture Station, breeds large, older fish called “broodstock.” It sends brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and steelhead trout eggs to the state’s four other hatcheries, along with eggs for other state and federal hatcheries. In Vermont, state officials stock lakes and streams with trout for anglers. 

The budget for the hatchery, which has been operating since 1931, is not included in the governor’s budget proposal to lawmakers for fiscal year 2025. So lawmakers considering the budget are next in line to weigh in on the state’s proposal, which is not yet final. 

Closing the fishery would save the department hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, according to Chris Herrick, commissioner of the Fish & Wildlife Department. This year, the operating and staffing costs of the hatchery are roughly $600,000, he said. 

The anglers that oppose the proposal are worried that the closure would reduce their opportunities to practice the sport and make it harder to catch fish to eat. 

“The issues that arise from closing this hatchery are economic, cultural, social,” said Mike Covey, a lobbyist with Vermont Traditions Coalition, an organization that advocates for anglers, hunters and trappers. “We would lose our trout stocking program essentially for two to seven years by species.”

Fishing, Covey said, is an accessible and affordable form of recreation that can help increase food security for some Vermonters. He’s also concerned that if anglers continue to fish at current rates without stocked fish that the activity could harm native fish populations. 

On Tuesday, a group of hunters and anglers gathered at the Statehouse to ask lawmakers questions about the hatchery and S.258, a bill that would make changes to the structure of the Fish & Wildlife Board. 

“If there’s changes that need to be occurring in the budget, charge us more money,” said Kevin Lawrence, a Newbury resident who traveled to the Statehouse on Tuesday. “Everybody who is standing over there raised their hand when I asked them, ‘Would you spend five dollars more on a fishing license to keep this thing in motion?’”

In addition to the department’s financial stress, Herrick said the hatchery may not be eligible for a water quality permit in 2027 because of waste discharged from the facility. Despite recent investments in tools to help improve water quality, the hatchery has recently had trouble meeting water quality standards, Herrick said. 

If the hatchery closes, three of the facility’s four fulltime staff members would be transferred to other posts within the department, according to Herrick. A federal grant would cover the staff members’ costs, and that federal funding is “only available if we start encumbering it in August,” Herrick said.

The last staff member would remain at the hatchery as a caretaker. 

State officials don’t know yet how they would replace the function of the Salisbury hatchery, if it closes. 

“There’s some real advantages to having our own broodstock in that we can manage fish health really well,” said Eric Palmer, director of the department’s Fish Division. “We can keep diseases from coming into the state. We can have the right number of fish to produce the right number of eggs. We can do some things at the hatchery to affect the timing of when the fish spawn.”

The department is considering starting broodlines at other hatcheries in the state, but such an endeavor could be complicated. The state chose Salisbury to be its brookstock station because of its access to groundwater, which protects the fish from disease. 

“Many of our other facilities just aren’t suited for holding broodstock,” Palmer said. 

Instead, Vermont could hold a smaller number of broodstock and also obtain eggs from other sources, such as buying them commercially, bringing them in from other state programs, or getting eggs from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “which would be much cheaper than holding our own broodstock,” Palmer said. 

Those options can be tricky to manage, Palmer said, “as far as having the right strain, the right number, the right timing, and obviously we want to make sure that anything we bring into the state is disease free and very carefully tested.

Still, Palmer said, the department is looking for any options available to maintain current fish stocking practices with “as few changes as possible.”

Shaun Robinson contributed reporting to this story.

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