ROXBURY — An important historic site is coming back to life. Vermont’s oldest fish hatchery was severely damaged by Tropical Storm Irene after a nearby stream jumped its banks during the deluge in 2011. Since then, the Roxbury Fish Hatchery was out of operation. Now it is being reconstructed, starting with a groundbreaking ceremony held earlier this week.

At the event, Tom Berry, who is on the staff of Sen. Patrick Leahy, offered congratulations to Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department for breaking ground on the new facility. Jessica Early, from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office, read his comments at the event.

“When Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Roxbury Fish Hatchery seven years ago,” read Early from the podium, “the state lost a critically important asset that supports fish restoration efforts and countless recreational opportunities for Vermonters and visitors, alike. This new hatchery will soon again be a vital resource serving our state.”

“This is not just an investment in natural resources and natural resource protection, but also to economic development,” said George Twig, state director for Congressman Peter Welch. “The outdoor recreation industry is enormously important to the Vermont economy both locally here and around the state. So, to continue to invest and maintain and rebuild these assets to keep that part of Vermont’s economy humming, it is really vital.”

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said she was happy to celebrate the project, having grown up hunting and fishing with her father. She spoke on behalf of the Vermont Legislature, saying, “It’s such an important part of our heritage here, the ability for kids like me and visitors to be able to come out and enjoy what Vermont has to offer, and part of that is represented by what we’re doing here today.”

Gov. Phil Scott was the last to speak, saying everyone should be proud of the achievement. After being damaged by the storm, Fish & Wildlife applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to rebuild the hatchery. At first, the rebuild was to be funded in full, including updates to the facility that would improve water quality. But later FEMA reduced the amount to $1 million, and the remaining funds have been directed by the Vermont Legislature through the capital bill. The state is expected to pay $5 to $6 million for the new facility. All of the speakers at the event thanked Fish & Wildlife for its persistence in securing funding for the project.

“Without your help, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Scott said to Flory and the Vermont Legislature. He said the impact from the loss of the Roxbury hatchery has been felt in the tourism industry.

Before it was damaged, the hatchery had been using five earthen ponds to hold the fish. Fish feed that wasn’t eaten would settle to the bottom of the ponds; feed that did pass through the fish would return to the water as waste. In both situations, the water quality was poorer as a result, and water from the ponds then flowed into the Third Branch of the White River, affecting water quality there as well. The new hatchery, however, will include water quality improvements such as round tanks to hold the fish.

The facility will be modernized with features like ADA-compliant walkways and updated informational displays, while also maintaining its historic character.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, the hatchery was originally built in 1891 in response to declining populations of native fish. The land-use changes and environmental impacts of industrialization in this region caused erosion and pollution, and the Vermont Legislature appropriated funding to construct a fish hatchery to repopulate the state’s waterways. Until it was damaged in 2011, the hatchery produced large quantities of healthy brook and rainbow trout that were stocked throughout Vermont.

The site in Roxbury was chosen for the hatchery for reasons that still hold true today.

“The site has a number of benefits. It’s in a nice central location, and it raises beautiful fish because it has good water,” said Eric Palmer, Fish & Wildlife fisheries director.

A stream nearby and several wells provide the clean, cold water that brook trout rely on. Although it is currently closed to visitation, it has been an easily-accessible destination in the past and can be again, once reconstruction is completed.

Stocking with fish from hatcheries serves two purposes in Vermont. The stocked fish are used to help restore native populations of fish that are no longer naturally reproducing. For example, lake trout and salmon used to be naturally occurring in Lake Champlain, but have not reproduced on their own for decades.

Another use for stocked fish is “put and take” stocking, or growing fish up to a size that anglers can keep. These fish are meant to be caught during the same fishing season they are released. Palmer says these stocked fish don’t survive well and they tend to be stocked in marginal habitat. This type of stocking is directed at providing recreational opportunities, which Palmer said provide multiple benefits, such as connecting with nature.

For example, the facility normally produces 2-year-old “trophy brook trout” and more than 5,000 brook trout annually for the department’s children’s fishing education program. Groups around the state, such as sportsmen or angling clubs, will get a small number of fish for special fishing events for kids.

“Kids can come and catch fish, and adult anglers are there to show them how to do it,” said Palmer.

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