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Isolated Rearing Facility For Native Fish Key Component In Montana Effort To Reduce Hybridization
Posted on Friday, December 18, 2015 (PST)

Brian Marotz recalls running into a rickety, defunct fish hatchery just off Montana’s North Fork Flathead River in the mid-1990s. As a state fisheries biologist who was guiding mitigation work for native fish species, Marotz was surprised to see there were still rainbow trout in the hatchery, and shocked to learn the fish had potential to escape into the North Fork, presenting hybridization threats to native fish in the Flathead River system.


Rather than seeing a problem, Marotz saw an opportunity. He contacted the owners of the fish farm, and soon after secured a deal to rent then purchase the hatchery in 1997 with specific goals in mind for native fish. What started as somewhat of a pipe-dream project has turned out to be a model for success in a broader effort for conserving westslope cutthroat trout in Montana not as a hatchery, but as an isolated, rearing facility for native fish.


The Sekokini Springs Isolation Facility became a critical component in a long-term, comprehensive project to restore genetic purity of westslope cutthroat populations in alpine lakes that drain into the South Fork Flathead River Basin (see main story at


“It’s really gratifying to me that it’s all coming together,” said Marotz, who now leads Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the best ways to manage dam operations and fisheries in the state. He still has a keen interest in native fish conservation, and the Sekokini hatchery is a Marotz brain child toward that end.


But Marotz hands off credit to others who have assumed the mantle of making the hatchery a success. So far, it is an operation that has involved collecting wild fish from South Fork tributaries, transporting them in survivable conditions on packing stock, rearing them, and then putting them back into alpine lakes that are the focus of the native fisheries project.


“We’ve come a long, long way,” says Scott Relyea, hatchery manager, who runs the facility along with Toby Tabor. “We didn’t know kind of what we were when we first started bringing wild fish in. It’s been a learning process.”


Marotz says the combined effort of developing the Sekokini facility, taking more than a decade, along with the alpine lake restoration work, have become a model.


“I would be willing to argue that they are the most experienced in the world in projects like this,” Marotz said, referring to the hatchery staff and those who have worked with Matt Boyer, the lead fisheries biologist who has managed the alpine lakes work.


“They are being interviewed constantly by people who are trying to keep wild fish alive in captivity, because it’s not easy,” Marotz said.


When the work at Sekokini started, mortality of wild fish that were brought in could reach 60 percent, but that mortality has been reduced to less than 1 percent because of innovative techniques. Relyea said the main change, from conventional hatchery operations, was using meal worms as a transitional feed leading to pellet feed.


“When the wild fish were brought to the hatchery, they had never seen a pellet,” Relyea said, but the use of meal worms and other methods of weaning wild fish toward high-protein pellets worked out.


Marotz said the Sekokini facility came about through “nickel-and-dime” funding but it progressed mostly to his satisfaction. The run-down facility that he started with jumped through legal, logistical and funding hurdles. What was a building with concrete holding ponds and raceways, along with outdoor ponds and an open-water supply pond, turned into a refurbished, larger building with capped artesian well water providing highly desirable, varying temperatures for water supplies.


Relyea said the facility is on track to providing 90,000 west slope trout fry in the summer of 2016 for the alpine lakes that Boyer’s project is focused on. But Relyea stressed that numbers aren’t necessarily important.


“In this work, it’s not about numbers, we’re not a production facility. It’s about genetics,” he said.


Relyea remembers visiting the Sekokini hatchery with Marotz early on, with Marotz describing open-air rearing ponds with potential to support aquatic insects and other feed for wild fish. That has come to pass — four such ponds are on site, providing the ability to raise up to four genetically distinct populations of fish.


“We’re almost there. It’s pretty exciting,” Relyea said. “Now it’s real. It’s going to become a reality.”

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