Utah begins work to rebuild fish hatchery destroyed by invasive species

A rendering of what a new building at the future Loa Fish Hatchery will look like. Ground was broken on the project last week.

A rendering of what a new building at the future Loa Fish Hatchery will look like. Ground was broken on the project last week. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)


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LOA, Wayne County — The Loa Fish Hatchery was once Utah's largest trout producer with the capacity to pump out about 180,000 pounds of fish every year, which were stocked in bodies of water all over the state.

That was until a little over a decade ago.

The small but pesky New Zealand mud snail infested the hatchery in 2012. The situation — exacerbated by other circumstances — worsened over the next few years, reaching a point where the state decided in 2014 to close the facility down after 78 years.

But the historic hatchery is now getting a second chance. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources broke ground on a new and improved hatchery on May 30 after the state funded the project last year. The new building is expected to be completed in mid-2027 before fish return to the facility in 2028.

"We feel that this hatchery will provide even more opportunities for Utahns to enjoy the outdoors with their families," said Justin Shirley, the division's director, in a statement. "We are so excited for this new facility and all that it will mean for fishing and outdoor recreation in Utah."

The original Loa Fish Hatchery opened in 1936 and played a vital role in Utah. Its historic capacity represents a little more than 15% of Utah's annual hatchery output of about 1.1 million pounds of fish every year at hatcheries.

However, that all changed when the New Zealand mud snail ended up in the hatchery. The species is problematic because it displaces the native aquatic insects that fish consume and results in lower growth rates and lower populations of fish in the bodies of water the species invades, according to the city of Boulder, Colorado.

State wildlife officials suspected in 2012 that the tiny creature, only about 5 millimeters in size, likely spread to the area by attaching itself to fishermen's waders. While small, the species' impact on the fishery was massive.

Roger Mellenthin, fish culture coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, explained that regulations made it impossible to stock fish at the hatchery without going through a "very arduous purging process" to determine that the fish raised in the facility weren't consuming the mud snail. It didn't help that the facility had deteriorated with time as experts tried to solve the problem.

"We tried to disinfect the hatchery and get the snails out, but because of the old infrastructure (and) all the cracks in the raceway, it was impossible to disinfect," he said.

With no funding to rebuild the facility, the division was left with just one option. It closed the facility down in late 2014.

A site plan for the new Loa Fish Hatchery. The facility is expected to be completed in 2027 and raise up to 350,000 pounds of fish in the years after that.
A site plan for the new Loa Fish Hatchery. The facility is expected to be completed in 2027 and raise up to 350,000 pounds of fish in the years after that. (Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

Almost immediately there was talk of bringing back the Loa facility, as division officials said its closure "put a strain" on the state's 13 other fish hatcheries over the past decade. Mellenthin said the hatcheries are "overloaded," making it impossible to complete maintenance work on any of them without an impact on state operations.

The project was officially rekindled after Utah lawmakers directed a little more than $56.8 million toward the project during the 2023 legislative session.

Some of the old buildings will soon be torn down as the entire facility is rebuilt from scratch, according to Mellenthin. He said the new facility will be much larger than the old one, producing an estimated 350,000 pounds of fish every year — about one-third of what Utah produces. It will use water from the area's natural springs and send water back to the Fremont River.

Once complete, the facility will be primarily used to raise rainbow and cutthroat trout.

Its completion will also allow the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to improve other hatcheries while continuing to expand its operations over the next 20 years. That means more fishing opportunities for an industry that already supports about 8,000 jobs and contributes $1 billion toward the state economy annually, Mellethin said.

"(It) will help provide the additional fish-rearing space needed to redistribute production, improve hatchery fish-rearing conditions and meet the annual angling demands for healthy, stockable fish," he said.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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