The Roxbury Fish Hatchery - An Antique Operation is Reborn and is Better Than EverMar 24, 2022 02:30PM ● By By Chris Jackson. Photography by Jack Rowell.
State officials add fish to the tank at the dedication
The scene of many a school field trip, destination of many a bike excursion (with stopovers at the spectacular swimming holes along 12A), we believed that the fish hatchery was ours. During the warm months when the hatchery was in operation, our families would picnic beside the hatchery holding ponds, teeming with immature fish called fry. We kids would pester the staff with questions about the mythic two-headed trout that was said to lurk in the depths of the hatchery’s ponds. We would insert pennies (later nickels) into the gumball machine that had been modified to dispense fish-food pellets and watch the fry leap and splash as we flung the food into the water. Our sentimental attachment to the hatchery has always run deep.
Thus it was with great sadness that we heard the news, now more than 10 years ago, that the hatchery had been scraped off the face of the earth by the furious floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene. While a few buildings remained in the hurricane’s wake, most of the holding ponds were obliterated, all the fish scattered or dead. The extent of the devastation made it seem unlikely that the antique hatchery would ever be rebuilt.
History Meets Modern Science
The new hatchery has been completely redesigned, but it incorporates at least one aspect of the historical operation: the entire process is gravity-fed. From a spring at the northern edge of the hatchery property, the water passes through a thorough filtering and ultraviolet sterilizing process before it enters the first of three new buildings built to the south of where the holding ponds used to be. These buildings house a series of large, round concrete tanks where the fish live out the first 18 months of their lives before they reach the proper size for stocking (8 to 10 inches). The water in the tanks is in constant motion, allowing waste and other byproducts to be collected in the center and removed via pipes built into the floor (it is later turned into fertilizer). The living conditions are much better for the fish, reducing such anomalies as the legendary two-headed fish and other genetic mutations. The fish can be stocked at a much larger size, since they survive longer in the new, more healthful conditions, and the hatchery can operate year-round.
Discovering the Devastation
Keeping watch over the proceedings during the reopening ceremony, beaming like a proud father, was Jeremy Whalen, superintendent of the hatchery, a wiry man in his early forties with the permanently sun-burned look of someone who has spent most of his life outside. He remembers back on that afternoon in late August 2011, when, recently promoted to his job, he was working his usual Sunday shift at the facility. Hurricane Irene, after causing major damage in North Carolina, had made its second landfall that morning in New Jersey, near Atlantic City. The forecasts were calling for heavy rain in Vermont, but the consensus was that the storm had done its worst and was likely to wind itself down with little additional impact. Jeremy returned home, relatively certain that the hatchery would withstand the storm’s ire.
Jeremy’s only commentary on discovering the devastation at the hatchery was, “It was hard.” Four out of the five ponds that had made up the old hatchery were nowhere to be seen, erased by the force of the floodwaters. While the vast majority of the fish at the site had been washed away, there were still several thousand fish flapping around desperately in various puddles and shallow pools around the site, slowly suffocating. The historic buildings, built between 1891 and 1897, were still standing because their doors had been torn away, allowing the floodwaters to flow through unhindered, but the rest of the hatchery lay in ruins. Joined by his old mentor, former superintendent Ralph Barber, Jeremy prepared to begin the laborious process of cleaning away the debris by hand.