Alabama Grows and Stocks Gamefish

Debate has swirled in Pensacola over the location of a planned Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fish hatchery, but 30 miles away, Alabama has been quietly operating a new, modern saltwater hatchery in Gulf Shores.

Tucked away behind the Jack Edwards National Airport, the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center has been in Gulf Shores since 1973. The facility was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Alabama Department of Conservation Division of Marine Resources secured more than $9 million in funding for a new 23,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2013.

The facility does marine research with Auburn University on Florida pompano and Gulf shrimp but also hatches and releases hundreds of fish a year into the waters of Alabama.

Max Westendorf, hatchery manager, told the News Journal during a tour of the hatchery Thursday that the facility is focusing on red drum but is also working to develop techniques to raise southern flounder.

"All of our data and the catch data that we're getting from fishermen and recreational fishermen is that flounder populations are down," Westendorf said. "We're trying to change our emphasis to something where we see the need."

Westendorf, who became hatchery manger in April, said he has met people who have lived in Gulf Shores their entire lives and did not know the hatchery existed.

The facility got its start growing striped bass in the 1970s in 35 outdoor ponds that hold more than 260,000 gallons of water each. The facility shifted to red drum after the popularity of the fish soared in restaurants in the 1980s while its population dropped to critical levels.

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The hatchery has also pioneered the production of red snapper and has raised numerous other species over the years.

Westendorf said using hatcheries to restore the red drum population has been a success story for fisheries management.

"They did a ton of research on red drum," Westendorf said. "Basically, they say the book is written for how to grow red drum because every species is very different."

Pensacola's proposed fish hatchery

Over the last few years, the Gulf Shores hatchery has shifted from pond production to growing fish in tanks, known as recirculating aquaculture systems, which is similar to how the planned Pensacola hatchery would operate.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have said the hatchery in Pensacola will be a 26,000-square-foot facility that will pump in 100,000 gallons of saltwater from the bottom of Pensacola Bay using a repurposed outflow pipe from the old Emerald Coast Utilities Authority downtown sewage treatment plant.

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Used water from the facility will be screened, with solids being sent into the sewer system and the water being released into the marsh area south of Bruce Beach, where the plants and seagrass will naturally filter the water.

The location of the $10.4 million hatchery has been the subject of debate and a lawsuit after the News Journal reported the state and city missed a deadline to begin construction, which was a requirement of the 2014 lease for the project.

The project is being funded with $18.8 million of money from the BP oil spill. About $8 million for the project is budgeted for the first few years of the hatchery's operation.

City and state officials contend the lease is still valid and are moving forward on the project, but a lawsuit has been filed to ask a judge to rule on whether the project was legally approved under city and state laws.

The Gulf Shores facility obtains water from two sources. A pipeline runs more than 1,400 feet to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, where it can pump in brackish water. Another pipe travels almost 2.5 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Alabama's Gulf State Park, where the hatchery can pump in saltwater.

The facility uses the two pipes to pump in up to 20,000 gallons of water at a time to reach the desired levels of salinity in the water, which is treated for 48 hours before being used in the tanks.

All of the used water is released into a marshy pond on the facility's 45-acre property, where plants also naturally absorb nutrients leftover before the water is released back into the Intracoastal Waterway.

Read the rest of the story in the Pensacola News Journal here: