Pensacola Fish Hatchery Fishes for The Future

Pensacola fish hatchery could have big impact on saltwater fishing industry, development, way of life



courtesy of Visit Pensacola, Inc.

Anglers try their luck at the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier; in the six years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, confidence about the safety of fish harvested from the northern Gulf of Mexico has rebounded.

Karin Sheradon hoists her rod and reel over the Pensacola Bay Fishing Bridge, pulls back the bail and watches as the fluorescent green line unspools into the turbid water below. It’s nearly dusk, and in the shadow of the bridge, the bay’s surface looks like wrinkled obsidian. 

To her left, Darwin Baxter unhooks a perfect, sandwich-sized trout, the second of the evening. He guts it with a penknife and chucks it into a small, gray cooler. Soon, the pair will pull the trout from the ice and cook it on their portable grill, washing down their dinner with gulps of Jim Beam and Coke. 

Sheradon and Baxter have been fishing from this bridge since they were kids. It’s a tradition shared by many of their neighbors, who rely on this half-mile stretch of cement for sustenance, a sense of community, and peace of mind. Each night, they park their cars by the roadside; haul out fishing rods, lanterns and lawn chairs; drink and smoke and fish til the wee hours.

“It’s just a tradition — coming out to the fishing bridge, hanging out, putting your line in the water,” Sheradon said.

There were a lot fewer lines in the water after the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. Many local residents — Sheradon and Baxter included — were so afraid of what contaminants might be lurking in the water that they stopped fishing for years. 

Now, state officials are hoping a new fish hatchery being built on the Pensacola waterfront could compensate residents for some of that lost use while also kick-starting marine research, providing a valuable public amenity and developing novel aquaculture technology that could help build an entirely new industry in the state.

The Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Enhancement Center, as the project is called, will be constructed on Bruce Beach, a piece of city-owned property just west of the Community Maritime Park, with $18.7 million in early restoration funding from the 2010 spill. 

The facility, to be operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will be the first state-run, production-oriented marine fish hatchery in Florida. Gil McRae — director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the state’s lead contact on the project — said he anticipated breaking ground as early as next spring. Once complete, the hatchery will churn out as many as 5 million juvenile sport fish annually to waters across the northern Gulf of Mexico.

courtesy of cityofpensacola.com

Sketches depict the proposed Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center, commonly called the “hatchery,” planned for Pensacola’s Bruce Beach. The state-of-the-art facility is projected to produce about 5 million juvenile sport fish annually. 

UWF economist Rick Harper said the project could provide an important “public good” by replenishing depleted natural fish populations, like that of the red drum. Just last month, state regulators reduced the bag limit for the popular sport fish from two to one per day in Northwest Florida. The change was meant to address concerns over declining wild stock. 

By helping to shore up these numbers, the Pensacola hatchery could do more than put more fish in the cooler for Sheradon, Baxter and their peers. It could put money in the bank for the state’s multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry. This is no trifling matter.

In the western part of the state alone, saltwater angling created 66,000 jobs in 2011, generated $1.2 billion in state and federal tax revenue, and added $4.6 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The project could also have an important impact on the economy of Pensacola. The hatchery is expected to generate up to 70 short-term jobs — mostly in construction and maintenance — and employ 15 full-time workers once operational. The facility will have an annual operating budget of about $1.5 million.

Perhaps more significant than these figures, though, is the wider impact the project could have on downtown Pensacola. The city has undergone significant revitalization during the last five years. Development, long clustered along Palafox Street, is now creeping westward, out from the city center. Bruce Beach, located on downtown’s western fringe, lies directly in its path. 

Because of this, Harper said the design of the facility could have a critical effect on the city’s future. 

“I think it’s important that the fish hatchery be family friendly and educational,” Harper said. “If it is simply a closed-up facility that doesn’t allow for public access, where trucks come in the middle of the night and load up barrels full of water and fish and take them away, its value to the community would be diminished.” 

The state’s plan does include public access components, like bike paths and educational exhibits. 

“We want this to be a place where people come and visit and learn about what we do,” McRae said.

The hatchery could also have an important impact on research — both into the ecology of the Gulf Coast and into new technology that could make land-based, commercial aquaculture a viable industry in the state. 

The facility will be built using state-of-the-art recirculating technology, which requires much less water and land than traditional aquaculture systems. The FWC has been developing this technology for years at a research facility in Manatee County. The Pensacola hatchery, in conjunction with its sister facility to the south, will help refine it. McRae said the commercial implications of this work were an important, if secondary, benefit.

Harper, who oversees UWF’s research efforts, was excited by these possibilities. 

“If the hatchery could become a magnet for federal grant activity in the aquaculture area,” he said, “it could become an ongoing research driver, and if it could employ scientists using federal dollars to do that research, then that’s kind of the best of both worlds.”  

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