May/June 2018The Stripes of SuccessBy Cindy Thompson
Ground-breaking research and round-the-clock fish rearing have generated a booming striped bass industry, and countless smiling snapshots, across the state.
Fishing for Photos
Around this neck of the woods, odds are pretty good that most of us have, sealed away in a timeworn family album, that slightly faded photo of "Pops" in his go-to button-down and fedora, holding a slick ten-pound bass and grinning ear-to-ear. That Kodak moment may pull more heartstrings than a July wedding.
Half of us are also likely to have our prize catch, a fish that is, hanging over the fireplace as a symbolic commemoration of that splendid day. The revered bass on the wall may slowly lose its grandeur and glorious glow over time. But no matter. The exhilaration of the moment is what we're really holding on to.
You could say that SCDNR fisheries biologist Forrest Sessions gets pretty nostalgic about that bass on the wall as well. For almost three and a half decades, he has helped rear millions upon millions of striped bass fingerlings and other native fish to stock in state lakes and reservoirs - a gazillion Kodachrome photos and cellphone selfies made possible by the Jack D. Bayless Fish Hatchery.
Back to the Future
It was during the mid-1980s that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built a new-age fish lift in St. Stephen as part of a mitigation agreement with the SCDNR. The Santee and Cooper river systems had been rerouted by dams and reservoirs to avoid shoaling problems downstream. This massive elevator of sorts, a one-of-a-kind engineering marvel, would provide a passageway for American shad, blueback herring, striped bass, largemouth bass and lots of other fish to migrate up and over this particular dam in Berkeley County to bigger waters.
The Jack D. Bayless Hatchery was constructed in 1986 as part of this mitigation agreement, right next to the St. Stephen dam and fish lift. Sessions, then just getting his start as a fisheries biologist, was brought on board to help run hatchery operations. He'd spent several summers helping his mentor and family friend, Ted Dingley, at the national hatchery in Orangeburg. All the training was paying off, and Sessions was eager and ready to expand on the groundbreaking research of his predecessors.
The Pioneers of Hatchery Research
Striped bass, the state game fish, are pretty popular here in South Carolina. Their sheer size and strength draw anglers in large numbers. On average, these bass are 20 to 36 inches in length and can weigh up to 63 pounds, the current South Carolina record - or up to 120 pounds in salt water. The fish may live to be 30 years old.
Creating a balanced aquatic environment for healthy fish populations and recreation has been a constant focus for fisheries experts through the decades. With the dawn of spawning research in the early to mid-1900s, fish hatcheries would soon begin to pop up across the state.
Much of the pioneering work for striped bass was done at the Moncks Corner hatchery, Sessions explains. "The South Carolina Wildlife Department's Bob Stephens and local family physician Dr. Robert Solomon worked on hormone injections... human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG... and they were somewhat successful artificially spawning striped bass. Jack Bayless came to the state and refined those techniques in the seventies. Tom Curtis oversaw the striped bass program from 1984 until 2005. The whole reason was to stock inland reservoirs with stripers."
As Bayless further developed hormone spawning techniques, the stage was set for mass propagation of striped bass. And in the years that followed, South Carolina became a world-wide source for striped bass larvae.
Leaping forward from the 1980s to the 2000s, stocking lakes and rivers with native fish like striped bass emerged as a win-win for the fisheries industry and the natural resources of our state. "In most of the reservoirs we release striped bass where there is no natural reproduction," says Sessions. "Those reservoirs are totally dependent on stocking to have striped bass populations. Even in reservoirs that have natural reproduction, we still stock those reservoirs to sustain populations. We release three to four million striped bass fingerlings each year. To give you an idea of what this means, people spend approximately $270 million each year to fish for striped bass. It's important to the economy of South Carolina."
As Sessions points out, the SCDNR's hatchery program offers an indisputable boon to the state's economy each year. Directing anglers to South Carolina's stocked lakes and rivers also means a trip to the sporting goods store, an overnight stay near the lake, and maybe even a new boat. And with the purchase of a fishing license, anglers are investing in the conservation of our state's aquatic resources.
The Nature of Fisheries
Working in synch with the ebb and flow of environmental variables is a huge part of the job for Sessions and staff at Bayless. During a wet season with adequate rainfall, fisheries staff breathe a sigh of relief as their hatchery-reared fingerlings will flourish when released in nutrient-rich aquatic environments. But a severely dry season could spell trouble. Sessions recalls droughts like the one of 2006, which had long-lasting, detrimental effects on the fisheries resources of the state. Many lake and river floors were stripped barren, and fish populations struggled to survive. The recreational fishing industry suffered a hit as well. Recovering from a natural event like this takes time and persistence.
Although this is an example of fluctuations beyond our control, Sessions and his colleagues learn from past events and build on the discoveries of the past to help sustain healthy fisheries populations as extreme conditions arise.
Over the past decade or so, the Bayless hatchery team has also found new ways to lessen stress on broodfish and track progress. Sessions cites examples of evolving techniques: "When I first came to Bayless, we marked fish by clipping fins to track fish we produced. Now we clip fins to get genetic marks. This has been used with striped bass and robust redhorse. Also, in the past we used tetracycline [to track hatchery fish]. The yellow ring seen in the otolith under a microscope would indicate they were hatchery fish. However, we had to sacrifice that fish to determine if it was marked or not. Now, when we bring males and females to the hatchery, we get a fin clip to genetically track each fish and tag them so we can identify the pairs used in a crossing. When biologists collect a striped bass in the wild, a single fin clip can reveal if it's a natural spawned fish or a hatchery-reared fish. If it's a hatchery fish, we can identify the parents and when that fish was stocked. We have continued to refine spawning techniques at Bayless Hatchery. We still use hormone injections, and we stage the eggs the same way, but now we anesthetize the fish using an electrofishing device."
The ultimate goal is to produce healthy and strong striped bass offspring and support naturally reproducing populations as well. The positive end results are evident in our state's rivers, streams and lakes where recreational fishing opportunities are growing exponentially each year.
Strengthening the Gene Pool
Bringing Back the Redhorse
Forrest Sessions and his staff are also involved in research related to the robust redhorse (Moxostoma robustum).The incredible discovery of this fish in Southeastern waters is developing into a new scientific success story. Sessions explains:
"The robust redhorse was rediscovered in the Oconee River in Georgia. Fisheries biologists found this large sucker fish but had no idea what it was. Dr. Robert Jenkins of Roanoke College of Virginia and leading authority on sucker species identified the mystery fish as a robust redhorse. Once fisheries biologists knew what to look for, remnant populations were discovered in both the Savannah and Pee Dee rivers. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, the species existed in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Upon discovery, Georgia DNR started the operation of artificial spawning and stocking.
In 2002, SCDNR embarked on a stocking program to reintroduce robust redhorse to the Santee drainage. Robust redhorse need gravel to lay their eggs during the spring. When water temperatures are about right, we can electrofish and collect ripe females and spawn them right on the gravel bars where they congregate. We bring the fertilized eggs back to the Dennis Center, hatch them, and stock larvae into rearing ponds. We've been stocking them since 2004 and have released over 70,000 fingerlings in the Wateree and Broad rivers. In 2010, we began observing spawning behavior, and now we are collecting robust redhorse that are progeny from the fish we stocked. So, there is natural reproduction occurring."
To select strong broodstock for propagation, hatchery staff select fish below dams at St. Stephen, Moncks Corner, Cedar Creek and other waters. In these waterways, biologists and technicians use electric currents produced by a generator - emitted into cables that dangle in the water on the front of a boat - to immobilize fish in the water. The shock extends over a small area that gives fisheries staff time to scoop up the right-size fish in hand-held nets as they surface.
"We begin electrofishing in the latter part of March to collect our broodfish," says Sessions. "All of the broodfish we use at the hatchery are collected from the wild. Larvae produced from these fish are used to stock our ponds at the Dennis Center and other hatcheries throughout the state."
Striped bass spawning takes place from the last week of March to the end of April. Staff are on call at the hatchery around the clock during this time, assisting with spawning operations until nine or ten at night.
The adrenaline is running high at the hatchery with the time constraints of the spawning season. "Using the hormone hCG, we inject around midnight and thirty hours later check to see when females will be ovulating," Sessions says. "We insert a small glass tube into the ovary to get an egg sample that we examine under a microscope. From the development of the eggs, our staff can predict when fish are ready to spawn."
When staff expect the female to be ready, it's time to rub her belly. "If eggs are flowing freely," he says, "she's ready to spawn. Once she does ovulate, eggs will stay ripe for half an hour. We don't want to let too much time go by to avoid over-ripeness."
The Natural Course of Things
Out in the wild along certain waterways, striped bass prepare to spawn around March or April when water temperatures reach 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This species of bass requires a long stretch of river with a steadily-flowing current for successful spawning to occur. In South Carolina, the Santee-Cooper reservoirs offer suitable tributary rivers, the Congaree and Wateree, that provide enough distance and time for striper eggs to develop and hatch. Unlike other fish species, striped bass do not build nests, and the eggs are not adhesive - so after the female navigates an appropriate distance upstream, she broadcasts up to three million eggs which are fertilized by multiple males and begin rolling individually downstream.
The eggs also require a river flow that is brisk enough to prevent them from settling to the bottom for the next fifty hours, their required incubation period. The striped bass egg's journey continues downstream, with time to tumble, roll and develop before reaching its reservoir home. In addition to the inland Congaree and Wateree rivers, biologists confirm that most of South Carolina's coastal rivers can support natural striped bass reproduction, with the largest populations occurring in the Savannah, Cooper and Santee rivers.
Making More Memories
Through genetic tracking, staff of the SCDNR freshwater fisheries section continuously monitor the annual spawning trek of striped bass populations and the progression of hatchery offspring across the state. Using this system of monitoring and tracking, they can determine the number of fish to stock and ideal locations.
The ever-growing operations of the Bayless hatchery program have generated excellent reservoir fisheries in lakes Marion, Moultrie, Murray and Wateree, as well as small populations in lakes Hartwell, Thurmond, Secession and Greenwood.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, hatcheries have helped funnel more than $680 million of recreational fishing revenue into our state's economy. And as ground-breaking research continues to expand, and fisheries resources grow stronger each year, the number of anglers will follow suit.
Looking back over the past thirty-three years, Forrest Sessions can proudly display a South Carolina fishing album that includes many smiling faces of all ages. And there are countless pages soon to be filled with Kodak moments yet to come.
SCDNR Fish Hatcheries
Freshwater fisheries staff sometimes find themselves wading into their work to supplement and conserve fish species for the citizens of South Carolina.
For more than eighty-five years, the SCDNR has operated fish hatcheries around the Palmetto State. The first, the Cleveland Fish Hatchery, opened in 1931, but that facility has since closed as the agency streamlined fish production. Some of the original facilities were built in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program workers. Today there are six hatcheries producing sixteen species for both conservation and recreational purposes, says SCDNR Hatchery Coordinator Leo Rose.
According to the SCDNR's official hatchery mission, the program goals are to propagate those species of fish in the sizes required to accomplish fishery management objectives as recommended by the biological staff and approved by administrative personnel.
"We have made tremendous advances in production techniques, and we produce more than ten million fish per year at all of the SCDNR hatcheries combined," Rose said. These fish are stocked in public waters. Most species produced are gamefish, including largemouth bass, striped bass, channel catfish, coldwater trout and many more.
Among the biggest success stories for anglers and the agency are striped bass research and restoration, and the propagation of coldwater trout to supplement upstate rivers and even provide a unique put-and-take fishery in the Midlands.
Important conservation work is also being done in an effort to restore three non-game species - the American shad, the robust redhorse sucker and the Carolina heelsplitter freshwater mussel.
To learn more about individual hatcheries and the species they produce, go to: http://hatcheries.dnr.sc.gov.
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife.
433 Fish Hatchery Lane
Cheraw, SC 29520
2726 Fish Hatchery Road
West Columbia, SC 29172
Dennis Wildlife Center
305 Black Oak Road
Bonneau, SC 29431
Jack D. Bayless
264 Platt Road
St. Stephen, SC 29749
5290 Fish Hatchery Road
Heath Springs, SC 29058
198 Fish Hatchery Road
Mountain Rest, SC 29664