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The Les Voigt fish hatchery issue

Les Voigt Fish Hatchery

Brief History: Originally founded in 1896, The Les Voigt Fish hatchery was gifted to the state of Wisconsin in 1897 by R.D. Pike, an early Bayfield County entrepreneur/developer. Since then it has served as an important cornerstone of Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Fishery. During its history the hatchery has helped with the establishment of Lake Superior’s legendary steelhead fishery, the introduction of Brown Trout, and very importantly, was instrumental in reestablishing Lake Trout into Lake Superior after the Sea Lamprey caused near total destruction of that fishery. It also has consistently provided cold water species for stocking into Lake Michigan as well, including a contribution of Chinook Salmon this year. In the 1980’s it was second only to the Wild Rose hatchery in terms of fish production of Wisconsin hatcheries.

The Issue: In recent times, the hatchery was able to maintain production by utilizing a raw water intake from Lake Superior in combination with water from the current well.  With the spread of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) into the Great Lakes ten years ago, the use of Lake Superior water was by necessity discontinued to prevent bio-contamination of the facility by potential pathogens. Since then, because of limitations and declining production by the current well system, the Les Voight Hatchery has been restricted to approximately 27% of capacity. The staff has experimented with some unique methods to recirculate water, but to substantially increase production, a new source of water, or investment in a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) is needed. Currently only 6 of the 14 raceways are utilized, and 2 of those utilize recirculated water from the other 4 raceways.

Why it is needed: The Apostle Islands waters of Wisconsin are unique in having three different user groups with demand on the indigenous fishery; tribal subsistence and commercial, non-native commercial, and sport. Quite simply, even with effective regulation by the WDNR, this puts a lot of pressure on the indigenous fish stocks. Since the 1980’s the WDNR has been able to help enhance and diversify the sport fishery by the planting of Brown Trout, Splake, and other species, sometimes with fair results, and sometimes with disappointing returns. To their credit the WDNR biologists and hatchery staff have worked to come up with ways to improve return on these fish. Recently they have discovered that holding fish to yearling size have drastically improved creel returns. An example: the average ten year annual creel census of Splake was a very poor 150 a year. By holding the Splake to yearling size, this was improved to 497 A MONTH! Keep in mind that many more than this were caught, but it gives an idea of the improved return.  Brown Trout have showed a similar improvement. The resulting improved sport fishery has started to shift sport fishing emphasis from solely the Lake Trout fishery to the opportunities provided by other species as well. Indeed, the Brown Trout fishery has become an unqualified success since this approach has been taken. With this has come an increase in the number of visiting sportsmen after a decline over the past decade, so the Wisconsin Lake Superior communities have started to economically benefit from this change.

This rebound has run into the brick wall of the limited water currently available at the Les Voight hatchery. While some help is provided by the outdoor Brule River facility, being outdoors in northern Wisconsin over the winter means the stocked fish average 15-17 a pound, as opposed to 5 a pound for Brown Trout raised year round in the Les Voigt hatchery, with a corresponding reduced rate of survival when released into Lake Superior. Restoring Les Voigt to full capacity would go far in encouraging increased sport fishing in Wisconsin’s Lake Superior waters, and diversifying the opportunities for Lake Superior sports fishermen.

In addition, the revitalized Les Voigt hatchery would serve an important biosecurity service of providing a separated cold water hatchery for Lake Michigan stocking initiatives, as well as interior cold water fish stocking initiatives. As a single disease outbreak can close a hatchery quite quickly, having another bio-secure cold water facility gives further protection from problems.

To drill a new well, estimates are in the $400,000 range. To transition the hatchery to an RAS system would be substantially more, but with the rising cost and demand of water would be the long term solution if it can be afforded. Whichever way would be chosen, it would benefit the Wisconsin Lake Superior shore economy by increasing sport fishing visits, would help provide a diverse dynamic sport fishery in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Superior, and provide the WDNR hatchery system with an alternative bio-secure and bio-separated cold water facility to the Lake Michigan ones in case of emergency closure.

The following organizations endorse this action.

Apostle Island Sport Fishermen’s Association
Western Lake Superior Trolling Association
Saxon Harbor Boat Club
Douglas County Fish and Game League
North Wisconsin Rod and Gun Club