Fish-sitters enjoy unique community service
Written by Oscoda Press   
Thursday, 09 June 2005 16:35
Each spring, dozens of area residents volunteer to baby-sit Chinook salmon fingerlings at twin fish imprinting tanks, located at the juncture of Van Etten Creek and the AuSable River, in Oscoda. Lake Huron Sportfishing, Inc. (LHS), which solicits the volunteers and coordinates scheduling, calls it fish-sitting.
"It's fun," said fish-sitters Jan and Al Alexander, of Oscoda. "But, it also comes with responsibilities."

It was 70 degrees and sunny Thursday afternoon. The Alexanders sat at a picnic table near the pens, chatting with visitors. The Alexanders' year-old Applehead toy Chihuahua barked a greeting.

A cooler, camping trailer, port-a-potty and outdoor fireplace served as the back drop.

It looked like a campsite, complete with a string of firecrackers on the table.

"We had to just set one off a few minutes ago," Al laughed.

The bang of the firecrackers scare away the sea gulls and cormorants which try to penetrate the net-covered tanks to reach the jumping fish inside.

In addition to protecting the 497,000 Chinook salmon fingerlings from predators, the volunteer fish-sitters guard against vandalism, water overheating and pump failure.

And, they make sure the fish are fed and their environment is kept clean, according to the Alexanders, who also serve as LHS board members.

Fish sitting is a requirement of the partnership between LHS and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As it does every year, the DNR deliver the fish once they are old enough to make the trip from the Platte River hatchery.

Upon arrival, the salmon are piped from the tanker truck into the two side by side concrete pens filled with creek water.

The fish remain in the pen until smolt, imprinting Van Etten Creek as their home stream, to which they will strive to return as adults, thus providing the area with a sports fishery.

Smolt is the time in a young salmon's life that its biological clock tells it to migrate from its spawning stream to the sea, in this case from the holding pens to Lake Huron, via the AuSable River.

The fish averaged 2? inches in length and were almost black in color when they arrived on May 18.

Under the care of the fish-sitters, they have grown to nearly six inches and are beginning to turn silver.

"Time to check the temperature," Jan jumped up.

From the side of the holding pen, she lifted out a silver thermometer from the water. "66 degrees," she reported.

"We have to take the water temperature every hour," she said. "If it reaches 70 degrees, we have to turn on the well pumps."

Creek water is constantly pumped into the two fish pens, both imprinting the fish and mimicking a natural environment.

During hot weather, the water can become too warm for fish survival. When this occurs, cold groundwater from wells is blended with the creek water, Al said.

As Jan checked the temperature, Al prepared to feed the fish, dipping out 10 pounds of pellets for the first tank, then an equal amount for the second.

The amount of food distributed is determined by DNR biologists, and increases as the fish grow.

As Al tossed the food into the tanks, the young fish raced for it.

The fish are fed four times a day, according to the Alexanders: at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

After the feeding, the couple checked filtering screens, clearing these of debris.

Earlier in the day, they said, fish biologists from the DNR's Henrietta Fish Hatchery, stopped by to check the health and growth of the fish.

A total of 60 fish were scooped from the side-by-side pens, 20 of which were dissected at the scene. The fish were measured and samples were taken of scales and fins, with their color, kidneys and bile ducts examined.

"They told us the fish were in good health, showed no signs of disease, and were growing," according to Al.

"They said our fish are 'above average,'" Jan added.

The fish-sitters said the biologists estimate the salmon will be ready for release to the AuSable River in a week's time.

"When they start to lose scales and markings and turn silver," Al said. "That's when they are ready to go."

After their weeks in the holding pen, they will be acclimated to the river water, health and strong enough to evade predators.

Typically, the salmon will spend at three to five years in the big lake before they return to reproduce and die, and also to provide Iosco County and the region with an offshore salmon fishery.

The Alexanders have been volunteering as fish-sitters since the holding operation was moved to the Van Etten Creek mouth in the early 1990s.

They and the other fish-sitters all have stories to tell.

One year a dog jumped through the net into the pen.

Every so often, a bald eagle tries to grab up a few fish.

Mostly the memories involve sitting around the campfire and chatting with visitors and other fish-sitters, playing cards, or just enjoying the wildlife, which includes loons, trumpeter swans, geese, osprey, an assortment of ducks, and the occasional deer.

A fish-sitter shift is four hours. Many enjoy their time on the river bank so much they volunteer for multiple shifts.

Fish-sitters come from all over Iosco and Alcona Counties and represent many walks of life.

Some do it because they fish and appreciate what the fish pens have meant to the offshore salmon fishery; others simply want to help the region, according to the Alexanders.

The Alexanders are 31-year residents of AuSable Township.

Al is a retired Holly and Oscoda Township firefighter, and is also retired from AuSable Township Department of Public Works. Jan retired as the Oscoda Area Schools' head cook.

The couple have been married 54 years, have five children, 10 grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and two more (twins) on the way.

"We do it because we want to help the community, and because we enjoy people," Al said.

Prior to the holding pens, the offshore salmon fishery had declined and anglers were going elsewhere in search of the big fish.

Success of the imprinting pens was proven through control studies conducted by the DNR during the earlier years.

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