Wednesday, 13 April 2011

A Visit to Kolapore Springs Fish Hatchery

A few weeks ago I bought some farmed trout from Kolapore Springs Fish Hatchery at the 100 Mile Market. I've been buying farmed trout regularly since moving up to Georgian bay, but this particular trout really made me sit up and say, "WOW!"

Consequently, on Saturday we got up early and drove out to visit the hatchery from whence it came. They are located east of sun, west of the moon off a narrow, gravel side road with no winter maintenance, in the Kolapore highlands - a rocky, wooded and sparsely inhabited bit of the Niagara escarpment. The Bruce Trail runs not far away.

After gingerly driving down the road, still covered in about 8" of hard packed and rutted ice, we met with Bruce Green and Lily (above) for a tour.

Winter had by no means given up its grip on the area, although Bruce noted that with another day or two of mild weather, he expected the black flies to be out in force. I couldn't help think we had come at just the right time!

The hatchery building is a modest, even slightly ramshackle looking cement block structure with a tin roof. It was build in 1962 and ran until 2006 under the original owners. The next generation didn't really want to farm fish though, so in 2008 Bruce Green and Sean Brady bought the operation, and began again basically from scratch. There were only a handful of fish remaining in the ponds. As of April, the hatchery has been in operation again for 2 years.

Their original plan was to sell trout to stock ponds, then start selling to restaurants, but the restaurant sales picked up very quickly. They too, were most impressed by the quality of the fish.

It turns out this is a very special spot for raising trout. Trout need clean, constantly moving water. The water comes from 2 springs about 400 metres further up in the woods. The water flows down, partly underground and partly through beds of wild watercress. By the time they reach this little series of dams, the water is rich in silt and nutrients and tiny wild fairy shrimp.

Some of the water continues to flow out to the small lake that the hatchery is on, but much of it is diverted through the hatchery.

The lake was still fairly frozen on parts of the surface when we were there, but various pairs of Canada geese were starting to set up housekeeping.

Fish start with eggs. It's important to select the breeding fish and keep them safe and secure while they spawn, or the eggs will likely be lost. I was surprised to learn that there are particular individual fish kept specifically for breeding, just as with other farm animals. Unlike salmon, trout don't die after spawning. Breeding fish can be kept for 8 years or so. Each of those little trays holds about 4,000 eggs.

Once the eggs are ready, they are kept in fine mesh trays until they hatch. When they can rise to the surface they become "swim-up fry". This happens when they are several days old, and have completely absorbed the nutrients from their egg, and need to begin eating on their own.

You can see water trickling into the table-top tank in the top right hand corner. It ran out the other end with the same steady trickle. The whole indoor part of the hatchery had the scent, sound and air quality of a shady forest stream bed. It was a surprisingly pleasant place to be.

The spring water, as I mentioned, is full of nutrients. This actually has a downside, especially in the spring when it is particularly strong. The high nitrogen can lead to the fish getting fungal infections in their gills. When this happens, Kolapore Springs does not treat them with antibiotics or formaldehyde, which are often used for this elsewhere. Instead, the fish are treated with iodine, or a very weak chlorine solution. (1 1/2 teaspoons to a tank).

As the fish get larger, they go into larger tanks, still inside the building. The source of big losses of the fish here are not diseases, but predators. Raccoons, mink, kingfishers and herons were all mentioned as particular problems. The raccoons are not too hard to deal with. Dead fish and guts are placed in a pile on the other side of the lake, where the raccoons promptly eat them. The odd raccoon still gets into the hatchery, but most of them stay on the other side with the discard pile. Mink are more difficult, and traps are constantly set for them. There were 13 caught just in the last few days.

Kingfishers will catch a few fish, but are not a big problem. Herons on the other hand, are one of the biggest problems. Wires run in every direction over the outside raceways, but they still get through. They not only eat the fish, they also damage quite a few more than they catch - because only the biggest fish go outside and they are mostly too big for a heron to eat - and worst of all, they can bring in parasites and other fish in the form of eggs which stick to their feet. They are shot.

Bruce shows us some of the young trout. These are speckled trout, about 13 to 14 months old. There are about 10,000 of them in the tank, which seems a staggering amount but they are still small enough that they have plenty of room to swim around.

The whole hatchery is just one big room, with cement tanks on one side for the mid-sized fish, and the table-top tanks on the other for the small fry and eggs. All the tanks have water slowly but constantly running though them. They still need to be cleaned of silt, etc, and an employee was cleaning one of the tanks as we were there.

The water runs outside and rejoins more water from the springs which runs into the outside raceways. This is where the largest fish are, the ones that are breeding stock or trout that are large enough to be harvested, or nearly. There are 3,000 to 3,500 fish in each section of the raceways.

The large, deep raceways provide more room for the growing fish. The lake behind them is about 17 acres in size, with a smaller 3 acre lake behind it. The lakes are part of the 75 acre property belonging to Kolapore Springs. The water is tested regularly by the Ministry of the Environment, but the fishery has had no impact on the water quality.

The fish are fed an organic feed from B.C., but this is supplemented by the large amount of small aquatic life that comes in with the spring water; mosquito and black-fly larvae, caddis fly larvae, snails, minnows and above all the very abundant wild fairy shrimp. It is these last that give the trout their intense red colour and excellent flavour. Other trout farms aim to get this colour by adding the enzyme contained in the shrimp which causes this deep colour, but without the actual shrimp, the flavour is not there.

The reflections on the water made it hard to get good pictures of the fish outside, but here's a couple coming up for feed.

Mostly they stay down fairly low though. The water is always very cold. Even in the summer it does not get much above 10°C. This naturally cold water means the fish have an excellent, firm texture.

The raceways get cleaned out regularly, and Bruce and Sean will be selling the resulting rich gunk as compost.

Bruce shows us some fish from a tank containing speckled and tiger trout. They have 2 kind of rainbow trout, speckled trout, brown trout and tiger trout. The tiger trout are a cross between speckled and brown trout. They are infertile, but grow quickly.

And finally, those tiny objects in Bruce's hand are some of those tiny fairy shrimp. If you didn't know that Ontario streams had shrimp, this will by why - they are really not very large or prepossessing, and will not be appearing on any menus soon, unlike the trout that eat them. Kolapore Springs trout are available filleted, butterflied or smoked.


Jerry said...

Another exceptional tour story! I just love to read them. This is not exactly your neighborhood farm, is it? You didn’t mention who sells their products. We have a lot of fish farms around here but all seem to be without cold spring water. Thank you for bringing this up.
BTW, you are very fast at correcting wrong word that spell checker will never catch (“by” instead of “why”, last paragraph ). Good writer AND proof reader!

Ferdzy said...

Jerry, to tell you the truth I'm not completely sure where to get them. I suspect they will be hard to find. Most of their fish are still going to restaurants, and I suspect the rest is going to a few local markets and maybe some to Toronto. But they've only been in business for 2 years so I hope their fish will become more readily available soon.