FAIRBANKS - There are no fish in the two giant plastic tanks at the Fairbanks Experimental Fish Hatchery.
In a perfect world, the pair of green 5,000-gallon tanks would be filled with thousands of small rainbow fish that would be dumped in lakes and ponds around Fairbanks when the ice goes out next spring.
But it takes clean water to grow fish, and the pilot hatchery's new water-treatment system is still being hooked up.
"We were supposed to be growing fish here this summer," said Jim Fish, an appropriately named sport fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, who oversees the experimental hatchery.
But a snag here and a snag there has resulted in a delay that is going on six months at the micro hatchery, which is tucked away in a corner of the Aurora Energy's Chena Power Plant on First Avenue. It will probably be another two or three months before the water system is completely installed, Fish said.
That's a concern, considering the primary purpose of the pilot hatchery is to test water systems that will be used in a new $25 million state-of-the-art fish hatchery scheduled to be built just down the street, where the city's old sewage treatment facility now sits abandoned and boarded up.
When that facility will be operational, though, is up in the air.
While Fish and Game officials were originally planning to have the hatchery completed sometime in 2008, they are now saying it will probably be the following year before the hatchery is finished. That means the first fish won't be ready for release until 2010.
"Everything has gone a lot slower than we thought," said project manager Gordon Garcia, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau.
The delays add up to fewer fish for Fairbanks anglers who frequent the 130-plus stocked lakes and ponds throughout the Interior.
Due to a lack of hot water - which speeds the fish rearing process - in the state's two existing hatcheries in Anchorage, the Department of Fish and Game has had to reduce the number of catchable-size fish it stocks in lakes and ponds throughout the state.
According to the state's recently released stocking plan, the Fairbanks area will get only 28,000 catchable-size rainbow trout in 2006 to put in the more than 100 stocked lakes and ponds in the region. That's about half of what the region normally gets, said Skaugstad.
"Last year we got between 50,000 and 60,000," he said. "Normally we get in the upper 80s."
As a result, some smaller lakes and ponds that are normally stocked with 500 or 1,000 catchable-size fish each summer won't be getting any next year. Bigger fisheries like Chena, Birch and Quartz lakes will still be stocked with catchables, but not as many, Skaugstad said.
For example, the state deposited 17,000 catchable rainbows in Quartz Lake last year and the stocking plan calls for only 8,500 catchables to be stocked next summer. Chena Lake got 9,000 catchables last year and will get only 5,000. The same is true for Birch Lake.
The number of catchables the state produces may increase in 2007, but it won't return to previous levels until the new hatchery is up and running.
"We're not getting the number of fish we want and they're not the size we want," said Cal Skaugstad, who heads up the Interior stocking program for Fish and Game. "That's why we have a lot of hope riding on this new hatchery."
The lower numbers of stocked fish worry fisheries managers, who rely on stocked lakes to take pressure off other wild fisheries that can't handle the kind of fishing pressure and harvest that places like Quartz Lake receive.
"Every year it takes to come on line is one more year we're not going to have the production we want," said Don Roach, region management supervisor for the Division of Sport Fish in Fairbanks.
The Interior is still getting upwards of 1 million fingerlings to put in area ponds and lakes but the survival of those fish is only about 1 percent, which means for every 1,000 fish that get put in a lake, only about 10 survive to catchable size.
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