Florida’s Freshwater Fish Hatcheries: Stocking for the Future
The FWC operates two freshwater fish hatcheries for all of Florida. The Blackwater Hatchery was built in 1938 and is located in Santa Rosa County within the Blackwater State Forest. It is primarily responsible for stocking waters in the Northwest Region of the state. Blackwater is responsible for the spawning and production of all striped bass and striped bass hybrid fry needed for fingerling grow-out and stocking statewide. Due to a lack on successful natural reproduction in southeastern river systems, striped bass spawning and stock enhancement projects conducted by Blackwater are vital to maintaining populations of this hard-fighting sportfish in Florida and throughout the southeast as part of the Gulf Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan, a cooperative effort managed by the USFWS along with the states of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
Blackwater was critical to an innovative stocking effort following the destructive landfall of Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018. The storm had moved directly through the Chipola River watershed, the only location in Florida where shoal bass (a Species of Greatest Conservation Need) are found. Post-hurricane sampling indicated the existing shoal bass population had declined 80-90% because of the storm’s effects. In an unprecedented effort, shoal bass broodfish were collected and transported to Blackwater to attempt spawning in hatchery ponds. Shoal bass are a riverine species that have very specific spawning habitat requirements. Blackwater biologists worked over several seasons to identify these needs and recreate this habitat in hatchery ponds. The first successful spawning at Blackwater took place in Spring 2022 and fingerling shoal bass were stocked for the first time in Florida in May of that year. Subsequent stockings are planned in an effort to restore the Chipola shoal bass population to pre-hurricane levels. Additional information on the Blackwater hatchery can be found at: MyFWC.com/fishing/freshwater/stocking/blackwater/.
The Florida Bass Conservation Center and Richloam State Fish Hatchery (FBCC, MyFWC.com/fishing/freshwater/stocking/fbcc/) is the larger, more modern facility located on Withlacoochee State Forest, in Sumter County. A 2007 renovation modernized the facility, originally built in 1965. This state-of-the-art freshwater fish hatchery and research facility is dedicated to conservation of the unique Florida largemouth bass and other freshwater sport fish. One of the tremendous features of FBCC is the inclusion of heated and chilled water allowing for out of season spawning capabilities for Florida largemouth bass, which creates two separate spawning cycles in a single year, thus increasing overall bass production. Additional benefit comes from being able to stock larger “Phase II” bass fingerlings, a process innovated at the FBCC in coordination with sister Blackwater hatchery. These larger fingerlings face reduced predation, greater forage availability, and better survival — all leading to better fishing.
Additional innovations for stock enhancement and restoration at Richloam include freshwater mussel propagation and culturing native aquatic vegetation. Staff have successfully produced native freshwater mussels. By scaling up this production, these mussels will be stocked in Lake Trafford in Collier County, with the potential to improve water quality and provide beneficial habitat. FBCC is also expanding into the production of desirable submerged aquatic vegetation, like eel grass, for use in aquatic habitat restoration programs.
Past research led to the formulation and production of the Richloam Bass Diet, an industry accepted standard for feed used during the raising of largemouth bass for stocking. Current research also lets FBCC serve as the laboratory to examine the best prey for adult bass to consume to reach trophy size rapidly.
FBCC has a visitor center with an overlook for watching fish production activities and self-guided exhibits with informative displays, which is open 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.