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In Mohave County, fish hatchery’s woes hurting businesses’ bottom lines

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BULLHEAD CITY – At Rusty’s Riviera Marina, owner Rusty Braun depends on anglers who load up on bait and tackle before heading to Lake Mohave along the Colorado River.

Rainbow trout are the biggest draw, he says, because those are easier for kids to catch in the cool water released from Hoover Dam. The anchovies he sells are a popular bait for those.

But business has suffered since last year, when a pipeline at Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery 50 miles upstream stopped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from stocking trout on Lake Mohave.

“It really took effect, especially when it first happened,” Braun said. “People kept coming in to fish for trout, but there wasn’t any, so that whole group was just gone.”

The problem began in August 2013, when a pipeline feeding water to the hatchery became clogged, cutting off the supply to raceways used for rainbow trout and killing tens of thousands of fish. The pipe broke a few months later, killing even more fish and leaving the hatchery unable to stock the lake with trout.

The hatchery continues to breed endangered fish by using another pipeline that works only when the lake is high enough and by filtering and reusing water. Lately some of that capacity has been used to raise 20,000 trout donated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department that will be released in October.

Before the damage, Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery was stocking 144,000 rainbow trout annually and kept a one-year supply of trout on hand. Mark Olsen, the hatchery’s project manager, said in a typical week the hatchery would release anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 trout into Lake Mohave.

“We didn’t feel comfortable bringing rainbow trout back on station because the lake will go down again,” he said.

Olsen acknowledged that the problem has been a hit to Mohave County.

“Recreational fishing definitely stimulates the economy,” he said. “It brings in fishermen, and they spend money on equipment, fuel, lodging and restaurants, and it provides a lot of jobs for the economy too in the local area.”

Hildy Angius, chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, said it’s not just about the economy.

“We are dealing with people’s livelihoods,” she said.

Angius said the hatchery has been working with Mohave County, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sen. John McCain and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, whose district includes the area, to find a solution.

Engineers to explore how to give the hatchery a secure long-term water supply determined the cost of replacing the pipeline to be between $100,000 and $1.3 million, Angius said.

At a congressional hearing in mid-September, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Gosar and others that fixing the pipeline depends on several factors, including funding. He said the agency would resume stocking Lake Mohave when repairs are completed.

Officials from Mohave County testified before Congress earlier that failing to resume stocking trout could cause sport-fishing in the region to dry up.

Christine Tincher, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, noted that keeping the hatchery operating has required creative solutions including creating a barge with a floating pump that can supply water regardless of the lake’s level.

“We came up with a platform with a floating pump, which is totally out-of-the box thinking,” she said.

Stewart Jacks, assistant regional director for fisheries and aquatic conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, said he is optimistic that the floating pump can be a solution for enabling the hatchery to resume stocking trout.

“There are lots of different options of ways to get water there,” he said. “There are lots of issues we are dealing with but with the time frame we are looking at.”

At Rusty’s Riviera Marina, said he and others here are hoping for a solution soon.

“It was just devastating for everybody, even the big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Big 5 (Sporting Goods),” he said. “All their sales were down.”