By Myers Reece, 9-19-12
||Caption: Hatchery manager Mark Kornick holds a netted westslope cutthroat at the Flathead Lake Fish Hatchery south of Somers. The hatchery primarily focuses on kokanee salmon, but also deals with Arctic grayling, westslope cutthroat trout and a unique hybrid trout out of Ashley Lake. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
SOMERS – From below the water’s surface to the surrounding valley floor up to the mountains, the world around Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery has undergone remarkable changes over the last 100 years. Yet life at the hatchery has remained pretty much the same, with a few notable and, for the sake of efficiency, necessary advancements.
No longer do volunteers from the community gather to sift through millions of fish eggs picking out dead ones, thanks to modern incubating technology and techniques. And no longer do hatchery employees have to worry about animal sinew building up in the fish tanks – formulated fish food has replaced ground livestock organs.
But the fish tanks are still the originals built in 1912. So is the aquarium. The hatchery itself had a “new” roof installed a couple of decades ago, but that’s about it for structural modifications on the century-old building. And hatchery manager Mark Kornick lives in a 1912 house on the hatchery property.
Nestled on the shore of Flathead Lake south of Somers, the hatchery is at once a museum and a working biological station, which requires more continuous adapting than meets the eye. Even if the physical property and basic daily functions of the employees are largely unchanged, the philosophy, science and methodology are always evolving.
“We’re constantly adapting,” Kornick said. “You have to, and I think most hatcheries in the state would agree with that.”
There is no celebration planned for Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery’s 100-year anniversary. Kornick and the hatchery’s other employee, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fish culturist Brad Flickinger, will focus on business as usual, a straightforward blue-collar approach that has helped keep the hatchery viable for a century.
The hatchery predominantly raises kokanee salmon, ushering the fish through life’s earliest stages from egg to fingerling until they are ready to be stocked in a lake somewhere. Each year, about 1.6 million kokanees are stocked in lakes and another 1 million eggs are delivered to hatcheries around Montana and other western states.
Yet no kokanees are stocked in the lake right outside. The tale of Flathead Lake’s kokanee salmon demise is well known: FWP introduced Mysis shrimp to the area in the 1960s and 1970s hoping to boost the kokanee population, a popular sporting fish, but instead tipped the ecological scales in favor of the voracious lake trout.
Hatchery manager Mark Kornick leans on one of the long red troughs at the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery south of Somers. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Today there are huge numbers of lake trout in Flathead Lake while the kokanee fishery is essentially decimated. Kornick said another hatchery in the area tried introducing 1 million kokanees in a single year and discovered it was basically just feeding the lake trout.
“None of the fish ever turned up in the sampling,” Kornick said. “They all turned up in the stomachs of lake trout.”
The hatchery supplies other area lakes with kokanees, including Lower Thompson, Echo, Lake Mary Ronan, Seeley and others. Kokanees remain a popular sporting fish and have a loyal following in certain circles.
“They’re a lot of fun to catch,” Kornick said. “But I think that primarily people who are diehard kokanee fishermen are filling their freezer.”
In a year, Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery may also raise about 150,000 native westslope cutthroats, 150,000 grayling and 60,000 rainbow-cutthroat hybrids bred specifically for Ashley Lake. As FWP tries to revive and stabilize backcountry lake westslope populations, Kornick said his hatchery is raising more cutthroats.
To accommodate increased demand, the hatchery expanded in recent years by adding a second location on the other side of the lake near Bigfork. But back at the original location, most everything remains reliably unchanged, though the subtle changes that have occurred are a big reason Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery has lasted a century.
“Even after 100 years,” Kornick said, “the hatchery is still a work in progress.”
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