Originally created 11/27/05

Hybrids could take hit in '06



Hybrid bass fight hard, taste good, grow rapidly and can live in a wide range of water temperatures.

But there is one thing the popular sportfish cannot do: reproduce naturally.

They must be "manufactured" by the millions each spring, when biologists at Georgia's Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery blend eggs and sperm from female white bass and male striped bass to create hybrids.

This winter, Georgia's General Assembly will be asked to eliminate the program that adds hybrids to Thurmond Lake and other open-water reservoirs across the state.

"The request we got from the governor's office was to make 2 percent in program cuts," said John Biagi, Georgia's assistant chief of fisheries, who recommended eliminating the program.

Hybrids have been stocked in huge numbers at Thurmond Lake for decades and are pursued heavily as a recreational sportfish.

Striped bass also are stocked in the 70,000-acre lake, but they grow at a slower rate.

Biagi said he hopes the hybrid fishery can gradually be replaced with stripers if the recommended cuts are signed into law.

"We have forwarded our recommendations to the governor, and he's gotten it," Biagi said. "He usually unveils his proposed budget to the General Assembly the first week in January."

Although changes in Georgia's game and fish programs sometimes require public hearings to get viewpoints from citizens, axing the hybrid program is a simple administrative matter. No public hearings are planned, Biagi said.

If lawmakers agree to cut the hybrid program, the cut would take effect July 1.

The cut would save $100,000 - the cost of a single hatchery, he said.

Although no specific hatchery has been earmarked for closing, that decision would be made later and any functions at the to-be-closed site would be moved elsewhere.

Since the Richmond Hill Hatchery also produces Georgia's striped bass fingerlings, it likely won't be closed, although its staff would no longer manufacture hybrid fry.

"We don't have one hatchery that just grows hybrids and closes the rest of the year," Biagi said. "It's an effort of many areas."

Although the hatching occurs at Richmond Hill, the fingerlings are transported to other state hatcheries, where they are kept in holding ponds until they reach a size suitable for release into reservoirs.

Typically, about 15 million hybrid and striped bass fry are produced at Richmond Hill each March and April, said regional fisheries supervisor Matt Thomas. "Last year, it was 6.5 million hybrids and 9.1 million stripers."

The fish are initially kept in hatching jars, then aquariums, then sent to holding ponds across the state, where they grow to about one inch. Those steps, including transportation, cost money that Biagi believes could be cut.

Ed Bettross, senior fisheries biologist for the Thomson, Ga., district, said Thurmond Lake typically receives about four fish per acre in hybrid stockings - 280,000 fish annually. South Carolina usually adds a comparable amount.

Thus, if Georgia's program is lost, South Carolina will still be stocking hybrids, although the total number would be cut in half.

"We haven't talked to South Carolina about this yet," Biagi said. "If the governor's budget does abolish the program, we would inform them, and also look for options or opportunities. We're assuming South Carolina would or could continue to stock hybrids in that lake, and also in Lake Hartwell."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.