- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

PAINT BANK, Va. (AP) - Give a fish some oxygen and it will be alive and well for a day.

Super-size the amount of oxygen and more fish can stay alive and happy for longer.

That’s part of the thinking behind renovations at the Paint Bank Fish Cultural Station in Craig County. Renovations started in September and will be complete this summer to switch from a faulty electric-powered system to a liquid oxygen method that will give hatchery officials more freedom in how they raise trout.

“It’s eliminating a mechanical system that is prone to breakdowns and replacing it with a self-run system that roughly has no moving parts and no electricity, and it gives me a greater amount of flexibility in fish raising due to the increased amount of oxygen,” hatchery superintendent Brian Beers said.

The Paint Bank hatchery run by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries raises brown, brook and rainbow trout, and when those trout are about 18 months old, they are used to stock bodies of water in nine counties from Craig to Henry, including Roanoke. Stocking season is from October to May, but the majority of the trout are released in the spring. Beers called the current system of 16 aerators that push oxygen into the water and five generators outdated, 1950s technology. The state took over the hatchery in 1983 and has used the aeration system ever since.

The current system gets water to a point of saturation, which is the most oxygen that can be put in the water. The new low head oxygenator using liquid oxygen will go above and beyond, reaching a level of super-saturation, Beers said.

The low head oxygenator works similar to propane in a grill. Liquid oxygen sits on a platform overlooking the trout raceways that look like lap lanes in a rectangular pool and contain tiny juvenile fish up to those that are almost 5 years old. A series of buried pipes carries the oxygen to the head of each raceway, where a dial allows for adjustments in the amount released into each bed of water.

The piping was the most expensive part of the renovation, costing about $150,000. The pipes were intentionally laid in the winter, when the hatchery is lower on fish, so it would be easier to move the trout to different tanks as various parts of the hatchery were dug up at a time. Now the hatchery is just waiting on the bulk tank that will hold oxygen.

More oxygen in the water means the possibility of more fish, or at least more pounds of fish. Right now, Paint Bank can hold about 100,000 pounds of fish, but the new system will allow it to hold up to about 125,000 pounds.

“Basically, the two biggest components that affect the fish are water and the amount of oxygen in the water,” Beers said. “If you can’t make any more water, you can increase the amount of oxygen in the water and therefore, in theory, be able to increase the number of fish you hold.”

Beers doesn’t have immediate plans to hatch more fish when the renovation is complete by August, but instead plans to grow bigger fish and hold on to them longer. That will mean once they are released, there will be more “10-point buck”-sized fish in the water for fishermen.

Paint Bank will be the second state facility to switch over to the new system. The Coursey Springs Fish Cultural Station in Bath County switched over as part of a $12 million total renovation completed in 2010, assistant superintendent James Bartholomew said.

Coursey Springs, unlike Paint Bank, doesn’t spawn or hatch its own fish, but simply grows fish hatched at other state facilities.

In the years since the renovation, facility officials have seen noticeable improvements in the trout.

“It really allows us to utilize more of the trout on hand,” Bartholomew said. “They’re healthier so they’re happier, and because of the increase in oxygen in the water, they’re less stressed and we see fewer diseases.”

It’s not uncommon for the fish at hatcheries to catch diseases from bacteria in the water.

The new oxygen system at Paint Bank won’t be reliant on electricity, which means it won’t be susceptible to electrical failures that happen about once a month on average. Largely because of weather, aerators at Paint Bank fail about 15 to 20 times a year and officials have to rely on backup generators. When aerators or generators fail, there’s always a chance some of the trout are going to die, which isn’t a worry with the new system, Beers said.

“The water’s going to flow and the oxygen’s going to flow whether a lightning storm gets you or a generator’s not working,” Beers said. “There’s a tremendous amount of peace of mind.”

The liquid oxygen, about 700 to 900 gallons a week in the winter and less than half that in the summer, will be about equal to the amount of money the plant was spending on electricity to run the old system.

Bartholomew sees the oxygenator as the future for the seven other fish cultural stations across the state, not including Coursey Springs and Paint Bank, but cost is a factor.

“They’re all moving that way, it’s just the way the red tape is with the state,” Bartholomew said. “It takes time and money.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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