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Welaka National Fish Hatchery Provides Refuge for Both People and Wildlife in the Path of Hurricane Frances


September 10, 2004

Shawn Gillett, 912-496-7366, ext. 232


While states assess the damage from Hurricane Frances and those affected begin the slow and sometimes painful ordeal of putting their lives back together, it is very easy to overlook the plight of wildlife, which was also affected by the storm.

Impacts on wildlife can be minimal to severe depending on the species and its habitat. In the small community of Welaka, Florida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel went to great lengths to protect two unlikely wildlife species from the fury of Hurricane Frances. The two wildlife species in question are the Gulf Sturgeon and the Gulf Coast Striped Bass, two rare and imperiled fish. Though not as high-profile as other endangered wildlife species, such as whales and manatees, both the Gulf Sturgeon and the Gulf Coast Striped Bass are critical to the Atlantic and Gulf Coast fisheries, and both have seen a decline in their population for a variety of reasons over the past 20 or 30 years.

The mission of the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is the conservation of fish species vital to the fishery resources of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the coastal United States. The facility raises about 5 million fish annually, and provides an important resource for the harvesting of eggs and restoration of these and other important fish species throughout the Southeast.

When Hurricane Frances was looming in the Atlantic, Allan Brown, Project Leader for the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, took measures to secure his facility from the high winds and torrential rains that were predicted to impact the area.

“We made sure that standby generators were connected to the primary aquariums for both the Striped Bass and the Sturgeon, in the event we lost power,” said Brown. In addition, one of his employees, who lived in a mobile home, volunteered to ride out the storm in the facility’s public aquarium, a sturdy, block building, which offered far better protection against the wind and the rain.

Because the Welaka area is home to many retired people, many of whom live in mobile homes, Brown also made his facility available for use as an emergency shelter.

“We have two sturdy buildings with restroom facilities, extra bottled water on site, and a staff member willing to oversee the operation, it just made good sense to open our doors to the community during this crisis,” said Brown. He went on to say that up to 30 people made use of his facility during the storm.

Though Hurricane Frances didn’t hit Welaka directly, severe winds and rains impacted the area. The facility made it through the worst of these rain squalls and high winds with very little in the way of damage. Yet, that’s not to say that there were not casualties. One of the facilities’ standby generators could not provide adequate support to the sturgeon aquarium. Although the Service’s regional incident support team did its best and sent Brown another generator within nine hours of his request, two of the sturgeon died.

“As regrettable as the loss of the two fish is,” said Brown “we are pleased that both our staff and those members of the community, who came to us for protection, made it through Frances with flying colors. It could have been a lot worse for both us and the fish.”

Hurricane Frances wreaked considerable havoc throughout the state of Florida, but here and there amid the scenes of wreckage and debris left in its wake, one can find shining examples of people going out of their way to provide assistance and support to those in need. In the case of the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Brown and his staff, went above the call of duty by ensuring that all the resources under their protection, both human and wildlife alike, made it through the worst that Hurricane Frances had to offer.

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