Fishy Business: A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery undergoes busiest time of year

Rebecca Harrell, Multimedia Editor

Less than a mile off IH-35 stands an agricultural establishment pivotal to Texas waters and wildlife. Built in 1949, A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery is responsible for spawning, hatching and raising numerous species of freshwater fish to upkeep its population within state waters.

The hatchery is one of five freshwater facilities, along with three saltwater hatcheries, responsible for stocking Texas waters. Without these hatcheries, fish populations would be unable to maintain a healthy population level, ecosystems would become unbalanced and the economic business of game fishing would not exist.

Michael Matthews, manager of the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery, grew up spending his time outdoors and fishing with his grandfather in Indiana. Matthews became fascinated with the dynamics of the gill and studied the physiology of the formation of fish, leading him to study marine biology in North Carolina and later earn his doctorate in fisheries and integrated aquaculture from the University of Florida.

Matthews, who has committed to the aquaculture business for over 20 years, says “this is a 24-hour-a-day, seven days a week job.”

Matthews is responsible for overseeing the hatchery staff, ensuring operations are running smoothly and caring for and studying fish the hatchery raises—a task Matthews compares to raising children.

“I can’t remember the last Thanksgiving I had off,” Matthews said. “I’ll get up and either start deep-frying a turkey or smoking a turkey, usually both, and run down here and feed the fish, do water quality, run back up there and check on the turkey.”

The main hatchery building consists mostly of holding troughs and production raceways as well as an incubation room and laboratory where water quality testing is conducted and fish spawn and newly-hatched eggs—or fry—are analyzed and treated for diseases and malformations.

The male and female fish mate and spawn the eggs. The eggs are then held on special spawning mats similar to a thickly layered netting and are kept in a production raceway with the male population of the fish.

Male bass fish are the keepers of their spawn and continually swim around, resting on the mats to guard their spawn. Once the eggs have developed to a certain stage, the mats are moved to a holding trough where they are vertically hung across the water as they continue to grow. The eggs will begin to fall off the mat as they hatch into fry in around a week’s time.

The fry grow at an exponential rate as their bodies undergo massive change in a matter of days. They are then moved to the outside ponds where they continue to grow until they are ready to be transported to waters across the state.

Carl Kittel is the regional director who oversees three of the five freshwater hatcheries including A.E. Wood and does administrative work for specific programs regarding fish such as rainbow trout and black bass.

At the end of each year, Kittel’s team collects data from their stock to figure out how they can improve aquaculture techniques, including what could be beneficial to the needs of Texas waters. He says each step in this process has a specific purpose in fulfilling those needs and maintaining the diversity and habitat of the freshwater ecosystems.

While these hatcheries work to maintain the health of freshwater ecosystems through sustainable fish populations, Texas game fishing would also not thrive as it does without the stocking of fish.

Fishing and hunting have become not only a hobby but a booming business in the south, generating billions into the economy. The fish that Texas hatcheries stock increases the competition for sport fishing and provides small lakes within urban subdivisions the opportunity to fish. Without the sport, supporting fishing businesses like bait and tackle shops, boat and fishing gear manufacturers would suffer.

“Our mission primarily is to make fishing better. We understand [we must] do that,” Kittel said. “We’ve got to keep the ecosystems functioning well,” Kittel said.

Hatchery biologist Hugh Glenewinkel says the work hatcheries do is important in providing Texas with the opportunity to fish.

“If hatcheries weren’t stocking those fish into the public waters, that angling opportunity wouldn’t be there,” Glenewinkel said. “Not only do we provide angling opportunities, but we also provide an opportunity to try and help imperiled or threatened species as well.”

Though the overarching purpose of the hatchery is to improve Texas waters and fishing, the location directly impacts the local environment as well. The water used to raise the fish is provided by the San Marcos River, which is pumped through a reservoir. When ponds and tanks are drained, the water is run through an on-site water treatment plant and tested for quality before it is returned to the river.

The A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery is an important piece to Texas Parks & Wildlife that Matthews says many are surprised to hear is right in the backyard of San Marcos. The hatchery provides group tours and also offers volunteer opportunities to educate the public on what it does and why it matters.

Matthews says visitors should come to the hatchery not only to see the fish but to understand the important role the hatchery plays in San Marcos and Texas environments.

“We’re very conscientious of where we’re at and what we’re doing and what we’re trying to be a part of, and I think we do a very good job, and I think it shows.”

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