The History of the Whiteshell Fish Hatchery – Part 1

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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part history of the Whiteshell Fish Hatchery and the problems it faces in the years ahead. Written by biologist Ken Kansas, now retired from the provincial government, whose work has played a huge role in sustainable fisheries practices in Manitoba.


 

Ken Kansas tagging lake sturgeon

We can take things for granted sometimes, like back in 1990 when I arrived in Manitoba’s Parkland district to start the regional management phase of my fisheries career. I was certainly aware of the Duck Mountain trout fisheries, but to be honest, I had really never paid much attention to them. Additionally, I had not paid much attention to how trout got there or where they came from. This would soon change, in a big way! I would make it my personal quest to learn all I could from two generations of hatchery staff. Often under utilized and rarely canvassed. It was time to mine their minds. Countless crazy long fish stocking runs were initiated with these cats, like the Cupar’s Creek Brook trout expeditions, or the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’-like brutal multi-transportation stockings of Brook trout into Kennedy Lake. Sometimes they even had a snowbank chilled surprise beverage treat awaiting post-adventure. Brilliant.

Countless late evenings, combining knowledge and information head first like stubborn bighorn sheep rams bashing forth amid 70 decibel Tragically Hip blaring inside of my square log shop we most defiantly called the Red Moose Inn. The next morning everyone gone, with nothing but the smell of diesel smoke and pickled jalapeño peppers left behind, and of course the new knowledge and plans laying everywhere, tangled in the sawdust. Some of the embryonic ponderings of FLIPPR (Fish and Lake Improvement for the Parkland Region) were generated from these missions. Along with a couple of solid long running friendships. But I ramble.

Whiteshell Hatchery circa 1969 showing newly constructed circular holding tanks out front.

EARLY LIFE HISTORY
The Whiteshell Provincial Fish Hatchery was built in 1942. Smack dab in the middle of WWII, which must have been something else. The main building was situated nicely at the north end of West Hawk Lake with the Whiteshell River strolling on by. A dam was built at the outflow of West Hawk Lake which allowed for a gravity fed water supply all year round. The hatchery was built to grow trout but were limited by ambient water temperatures and minimal holding facilities. In this scenario, the hatchery could grow trout to the fry or slightly larger size. Several holding tanks were set up on Crescent Beach at the south end of West Hawk Lake to offset these limitations. Here they had access to cold well water, which made possible the addition of summer season rearing.

The dam and hatchery water line built at the outflow of West Hawk Lake.

In 1956, a rearing building was constructed at the hatchery site. This made operations smoother and increased the production of trout. By 1967, hatchery operation logistics and capabilities greatly improved with the installation of a 54 centimetre pipeline into West Hawk Lake. This line ventured over 1000 metres out to a depth of 13.7 metres. The gravity fed system could maintain a flow of 9000 l/minute of 10 Celsius water. Annual production went from 3400 trout yearlings in 1956, to 225,000 by 1968.

New rearing building construction 1956.

Hatchery staff could also control and manipulate water temperatures specifically for certain trout species and eventually other species besides trout. Around the same time, four circular tanks were built to hold yearling and brood stock trout. By 1969 the hatchery produced its first rainbow and brook trout eggs from their own reared brood stock. The addition of a water ‘recirc’ system in 1991 allowed for even further control of water temperatures which led to growing large lots of trout in less time.

‘Donny Billenduke (left) and Ray Shewfelt (right) kickin’ it old school circa 1990’s’

LOOKING BACK  
Recently, I sat down with ‘Doctor’ Ray Shewfelt and Donny Bilenduke, both retired Fisheries folk with a combined 70+ years of working at the Whiteshell Hatchery. You heard me. They kinda seen and did some stuff, participating in some major changes in the evolution and growth of the hatchery during their tenure.They agreed that a major change to hatchery operations was the ability to ‘recirc’ the hatchery water. This was key, especially for winter growth. They could warm water from 2 C to 10 C during the winter months, and keep it ther“It was a game changer” Ray expounded. “Trout would grow four times as fast over the same time period”. When asked about some other changes, they talked about 1984 when they started walleye spawn taking at Falcon Creek, a technical and labor intensive operation capable of producing up to twelve million walleye fry/year. Also changes in technology and techniques were many, especially beyond 1990. Seemingly simple things like using syphons instead of tweezers to pick dead eggs, disease testing and protocols,  water quality improvements, and raising muskie was a highlight. “Hungry buggers”, Ray claimed with a grin.Donny recalled times of budget cuts and restraints.

“There were times when we had to make sure lights were turned off and rationed toilet paper”. Donny said, only half joking. The cuts were bone deep. The end result were smaller fish from less money for feed. Distribution costs lowered since they could fill regional numbers with fewer trips. This domino effect did not benefit the fisheries since smaller fish had a higher mortality rate. Direct evidence of this action was quite evident in the East Blue Lake Rainbow trout population back in the late nineties. Small 8-10 cm Rainbow trout fingerlings stocked in the fall meant excessive mortalities from not only migrating birds but from huge Rainbow, Splake and Lake trout patrolling the shores as well. Enhancing this complication was the ‘blasting’ of 15,000 undersized Rainbows all en masse off the boat launch (the best way to reduce mortality is spread them around the lake). Rainbow stew anyone? Step up to the plate. Feed at will. We collectively solved this problem with a couple of ‘missions’.

One of the first ‘modern’ distribution trucks late 1950’s.

DISTRIBUTION – MOVIN’ OUT TROUT 
In the early years of trout production, most if not all trout were stocked in lakes and streams in the Whiteshell area. Large metal containers, which resembled the old cream cans of long ago, were filled with trout and moved about by truck and aircraft.The first distribution truck was manufactured in 1954. The tank infrastructure was made of wooden planks equipped with a pump system to circulate and aerate water for longer trips. It was around this same time that the early stockings of Duck Mountain lakes and streams initiated. Further improvements to transporting fish were made in 1960 with the addition of insulated tanks and oxygen diffusers. With increasing stocking requests from the regions came a heavier demand on the Whiteshell Hatchery to produce and deliver a quality product. The Whiteshell Hatchery have always been asked to produce with limited budget and staff. It is what they do. They do it with pride.

Filling aircraft transfer tanks on Government Beaver Airplane.

Kevin Dyck, another member of the thirty year club and current Whiteshell Hatchery Manager, knows all about distribution. He alone has logged over one million kilometers of fish distribution across the province. Together we have a hundred stories. One of my fondest is when we had our Patterson Lake grand opening soiree…This was our first FLIPPR lake so we planned to celebrate our efforts. About ninety fishers and assorted dignitaries gathered at Patterson to conduct speeches, schmooze and eat hot dogs. I wanted to top it all off with the stocking of some nice Rainbow trout. I put my request to Kevin and he said “We can do that, we have some surplus big rainbows up at the Grand Rapids facility I could bring down on a backhaul.

Timing could be tough, but I think I could do it. What time you want me there?”. I grinned, “three PM sharp”. “Geez”, he said, “I think I could do that”. Now, lots could go wrong on a trip from the Whiteshell  to Grand Rapids, then all the way back down to the south side of the Riding Mountain National Park. But he showed up like clockwork. You could see that gravel dust cloud on the horizon. That was a big deal man. He represented. It was a good feeling, especially showing off our long ignored and under the radar Fish Culture staff and capabilities.

NEXT ISSUE – THE PRESENT AND FUTURE
In the next issue we will explore the who, what, where and how the Whiteshell Hatchery functions and produces hundreds of thousands of trout, and millions of walleye year after year. We will look at perhaps their darkest period of history and how the Whiteshell Hatchery was almost closed permanently. We’ll also discuss the major infrastructure improvements in recent years and what’s in store for the future.The men and women of the Whiteshell Fish Hatchery have served Manitoba’s angling population well. I tip my hat to them all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Author

Ken has recently retired from a 30+ year career in fisheries research and management conducted all across Manitoba. From the Theliwaza and Lower Nelson Rivers, to Manitoba’s Parkland and Whiteshell areas, Ken has worked tirelessly in efforts to improve fish populations and recreational angling opportunities through science and common sense based realities. A rabid fisher himself, with a penchant for tossing flies at rather large salmonids, Ken hopes to share his knowledge with all Hooked Magazine readers through the unique combination of biologist and angler.

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