By Ellie Whitcomb Payne
Travel 13 miles off the beaten path through Wadmalaw Island and you’ll find a hidden treasure. Here, scientists work to fulfill the mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”
Over a century ago, a prehistoric sea creature ruled the Edisto riverbed. Thousands of spawning Atlantic sturgeon were estimated to visit the river each spring, leaving over a million eggs for fertilization. Despite the impressive reproduction ability of the Atlantic sturgeon, this creature, an animal thought to have known the dinosaurs, is barely hanging on to existence in the south Atlantic. While mankind is believed to be the greatest threat to this species, four scientists on Wadmalaw Island may be their best hope.
The Bears Bluff Fish Hatchery, funded through the U.S. Department of Interior, focuses on species flagged by the Endangered Species Act, or those at risk of endangerment. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service identified the Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species after over-fishing led to a marked decline in segments of the population. Manager James Henne and his small team study the Atlantic sturgeon’s biology and behavior to find ways to reverse this reality.
Two brooding pair, wild-caught, spawned the entire stock at Bears Bluff. They’re large—about 200 lbs.—and are still considered young adults. At a lifespan of 60 years, Atlantic sturgeon can grow to 800 lbs. Nearly 1,000 younger sturgeon live in other tanks at the facility but neither these fish, nor future babies, will be released in the wild. So, what’s the point?
In captivity, Henne explains, techniques can be tested without harming wild populations. Plus, it’s more controlled and easier for training. Bears Bluff is the only national facility successful at spawning the sturgeon. The fish raised here help scientists all over the country. “We have distributed over 15,000 eggs and fish to ten federal facilities, two state facilities, and three universities,” says Henne. The hatchery has sent fish as far as Missouri and Maine.
Fishermen’s Favorites Hatched at Bears Bluff
At dusk on April 30, the Bears Bluff team set out to find a spawning American shad. The goal: to bring eggs back to the refuge to hatch. A popular sport fish, shad numbers in the wild appear to be dwindling. Scientists are not sure why the population numbers are depressed, but a theory suggests the eggs are not surviving the larval stage.
A visitor in late spring would be lucky to see American shad, which only live at the hatchery for a few days. After 24 hours in the high-tech incubation systems, the eggs mature. Look closely and you will see tiny, almost transparent, young fry swimming towards the UV light. From here, they flow naturally into another tank and can then be taken back to the river.
Henne says it’s important to get the babies back to their home early on. “Adult shad live in the ocean, but they migrate to the river to spawn—the very same river where they were born! We don’t know when this imprinting occurs, but we can’t take the chance of missing it.” The hatchery will continue to study local shad over the next several years to see if this head start will impact the wild population.
Other fish under the scope of Bears Bluff include Cobia and Bonnethead shark. Red Drum, another prized catch, are cultured in one of the six ponds at the site, then released to help keep rivers stocked. The newest program underway will focus on a threatened mussel species called the Savannah Lilliput.
Extinction prevention might be the best way to sum up the work at the hatchery—a goal, in Henne’s opinion, important to most Americans. “Even though they might not have known what [sturgeon] were 15 minutes ago, [visitors] don’t want their children to grow up in a world with one more species lost forever.” He continues, adding that if scientists can increase population levels so the animals can be sustainably fished, “theoretically there could be a harvest to provide jobs for local people and a source for locally harvested food.”
Plan a Visit
Visitors are welcome to see the beautiful grounds and the good work of Bears Bluff Fish Hatchery during working hours Monday through Friday from 7:30am – 4pm. The facility is located at 7030 Bears Bluff Rd, Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487.