Two Trinidad State aquaculture students brave the elements to learn more about salmon
Trinidad Campus / December 20, 2016 / Written by Margaret Sanderson
The wind-driven snow pelted Trinidad State aquaculture students as they strained to hear Aquatic Biologist, Jim White, during the first winter storm of the season last month. White was demonstrating the spawning of Kokanee salmon at Lake Nighthorse near Durango.
Spawn are the eggs of aquatic animals. Spawning is the process of depositing those eggs. For the land-locked (grown in large lakes but not the ocean) Kokanee salmon in Lake Nighthorse, the eggs and sperm are expressed by hand. The demonstration had been moved ashore because the Merwin net, a series of nets attached to a floating platform on the lake where the Kokanee are corralled and spawned, was rocking wildly in the wind. Already this year over a million eggs had been harvested there. While holding the tail of a female Kokanee over a container, the harvester applies gentle even pressure around her body while leading with the thumb along the belly toward the tail fin. The eggs shoot out in a row looking much like a strand of pink pearls. A stream of sperm is then squeezed out of a male fish, identified by its prominent hooked jaw and reddish color, into the same container. Although fertilization may take place in only one to three seconds, the eggs and sperm are swished in the receptacle and left to sit for 30 seconds to assure fertilization. The eggs are then rinsed in an iodine solution to help prevent disease and collected in containers where they are left to harden for thirty minutes before they are transported to the Durango Fish Hatchery. Because the fish will die naturally after spawning, the CPW (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) gives them away.
Early that frigid November morning all but two class members had opted out of the demonstration, all but Durango resident Sheryl Andrews and Steve Bunker. As a volunteer at the Durango Fish Hatchery, Andrews had arranged for the demonstration. Her volunteer work at hatcheries in Michigan and Arizona had sparked in her a love for biology. Her many accomplishments as a manufacturing engineer includes creating a design for a part that flew on a shuttle. She is a Colorado State University master gardener who received extensive training in horticulture and has passed that on to others by turning her very large garden into a Community Shared Agriculture(CSA). “Aquaculture is a natural extension of agriculture,” said Andrews. She has enjoyed her seasonal volunteer work at hatcheries so much she decided to change careers; but, first, she needs a college credential in order to apply. Andrews worked with Ben Webster, the Trinidad State aquaculture director, to establish a hybridized version of the program. She attends labs at the college in Alamosa on Wednesdays and does the rest of her classwork online from her Durango home. “This is pretty fantastic. I just decided if I want to do something different with my life, at my age (She’s in her 50s.), I better get with it!” said Andrews.
On the other hand, Steve Bunker’s choice to change careers was a necessity. An electrician for nearly twenty years, Bunker, a Valley native, suffered a severe ankle injury when he fell off a roof. Doctors in the emergency room immediately had him flown to Denver after telling him he would lose his foot in three to four hours if he didn’t get proper treatment. Following a lengthy surgery it would be six months before he began the painful process of learning to walk again. When he was ready to consider a new career, he went to Trinidad State to investigate. Three factors attracted him: less expense than four-year schools, many older students (Bunker is 47), and the classes are small. After taking the introductory class, he registered for the program. “I’ve always loved fishing and being outside,” said Bunker. With three semesters and the required hands-on experience behind him, he plans to graduate in May and hopes to find employment in Colorado.
Lake Nighthorse was named after native American and former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Unlike stream-fed lakes, this lake grew as water was pumped from the Animas River through a six-foot pipe which spans over two miles and rises 800 feet. “Unlike most Colorado lakes, there is no agricultural component here,” said White. “Its purpose is to satisfy tribal Indian water rights and is used for industrial and municipal purposes.” To meet these needs, water is released back into the Animas River through a large pipe. There is no stream inlet like most lakes have, nor is there a spillway on the dam. Water began to flow into this huge “bucket” in 2009 until it covered 1500 surface acres with a maximum depth of 183 feet. It took two years. Kokanee salmon and brown trout are two species of fish introduced into the lake by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). Although the lake is not open to the public now, there is discussion about recreational use.
After the spawning demonstration, the group visited the Durango Hatchery where Sarah (Bashaw) Gump, a 2008 Trinidad State aquaculture graduate, gave the tour. Gump’s love for her work has inspired Andrews. At 29 Gump is the youngest, but most experienced Technician III at the hatchery. She began taking classes in high school at age 17. “The college was the only reason I made it,” said Gump. “I would have been a career waitress! I’m not kidding. That was Plan B! I grew up a poor kid with a modest upbringing. I am very mindful of how hard my parents worked to provide me with this opportunity. I worked hard to earn every inch of what I gained. In high school the four-year path was so shoved down everyone’s throat. I’m so glad TSJC was there. A four-year program was not for me.” Gump, who finally has the opportunity to develop hobbies, is in to photography and is working to get published. “I love my work,” she said. “And it has allowed me to branch out and do other things. I have a great life.”
In the hatchery, the eggs pass through an “egg picker” machine that has a laser beam. When that laser cannot penetrate a white dead egg, a puff of air shoots it into a receptacle for disposal. Another receptacle houses the live pink eggs. A human “picker” will then use what looks like a turkey baster to pick out the dead eggs missed by the machine. Twenty elevated cement water runs, each house 40,000 kokanee salmon eggs placed in one specially designed bucket where 50-degree water continuously circulates. The eggs hatch into minnows in about 30 days and are released into the runs. Their first meal is raw cow liver followed by a fish specific meal blend for the next 18 months. When they grow to two to three inches in length, they are stocked in designated Colorado lakes thus completing their life cycle.
To learn more about the Trinidad State aquaculture program, call Ben Webster at (719) 589-7049 or visit this page. Classes begin January 16.