'Challenges' remain ahead
New aquatic manager faces drought, disease
By Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Editor
December 29, 2002
After six years managing a hatchery program riddled with whirling disease and nine months directing a fisheries program plagued by drought, Eric Hughes can't claim he didn't know what he's getting himself in to.
"I see these challenges as an opportunity. I want to make a rapid transition and start getting things done," said Hughes, who last week was confirmed as Colorado's aquatic wildlife manager.
The action restores unified command to all aspects of aquatic management - hatcheries, sport fishing, fish health, research and urban access - after a perplexing period during which the hatcheries function was administered separately. Hughes, who previously had been hatchery chief, also assumes the broader aquatic duties of Eddie Kochman, who left the Division of Wildlife in April. Hughes had served as interim manager since Kochman's retirement.
A slender man whose scholarly appearance behind owlish glasses lends credence to a pedigree as son of a former Colorado State University economics professor, Hughes approaches the task with an enthusiasm collected during a career with Colorado wildlife agencies spanning 30 years.
Hughes, 47, began work as a summer temporary in 1972 building hiking trails at Horsetooth Reservoir for the combined agency that then was the Department of Game, Fish and Parks. After graduating from Western State College in 1979, he subsequently transferred from a $1.60 per hour job with parks to a position with the Watson Hatchery near Fort Collins. The move boosted his pay meteorically to $2.81 per hour and established a career track that took him through a succession of hatchery positions all the way to the top.
Ironically, one of Hughes' early challenges comes in divesting himself from the daily responsibilities for a hatchery program that finally is emerging from a dark tunnel of diminished productivity related to whirling disease.
"I'll hire someone to look after the management of hatcheries so I can give my full attention to the aquatic side of the program," Hughes said of a more immediate demand, that of maintaining a viable sport-fishing program against the ravages of drought.
"If the current condition continues, we need to be fully prepared in a proactive way," Hughes said. "We encountered things last summer we never anticipated - reservoirs drained, entire sections of streams going dry. We found ourselves in a situation nobody alive ever had seen before. We have a lot of planning to do should this persist next year."
Hughes said he'll devote the next two months to forming work groups to formulate plans countering the effects of protracted drought.
"We'll concentrate on water management, developing programs that allow us to purchase or lease water to avoid crises," Hughes said of an initiative that must conform to the realities of statewide priorities. "We know that domestic and agricultural demands for water will continue to grow. Our aim is to be more prepared, not reacting to problems after they occur as we did last summer. We need to know what we'll do ahead of time."
That task will be made somewhat easier by the fact that hatchery production is being restored after more than six years of restoration aimed at securing water sources free of whirling disease. Ten of 13 state hatcheries have been certified clean. The next watershed will be the April testing of the Rifle Falls hatchery, the state's largest with a capacity for 700,000 catchable-size fish.
Hughes aims to have the Roaring Judy and Pitkin units certified by 2004. Two smaller units, Chalk Cliffs and Watson, never can be cleansed and will be used to produce trout for waters not connected to any salmonid habitat.
When the Wednesday deadline arrives for a total ban on stocking infected fish in trout habitat, Hughes now can discharge an arsenal that contains between 3 million and 3.3 million catchable trout. Included in that number are about 875,000 to be purchased from private growers.
"That figure would have been 3.9 million but for the drought," Hughes said of a condition that severely restricts water supplies and carrying capacity at several hatcheries. Hughes expects DOW units to produce 3.75 million clean catchables in 2004, compared to pre-WD average of 4.68 million.
As a hedge against drought, Hughes plans to stock catchable trout earlier in the season, putting them in before the angling public and before warm temperature sets in.
DOW will stock fewer catchable trout in streams, favoring a put-and-grow strategy featuring subcatchables. Hughes also expressed keen interest in WD-resistant rainbow strains such as those that evolved in Europe, while also emphasizing continuing research into ways to mitigate the impact of the disease in all the waters where it currently exists.
Hughes also faces a considerable challenge in filling vacancies on his staff of field biologists while dealing with budget constraints. He confirmed that Greg Gerlich has been confirmed as statewide urban aquatic access coordinator, a move that leaves vacant the vital area biologist position in South Park, where drought impact is most severe.
That position ranks well down a list on which the Denver metro warmwater post has top priority, followed by the recently vacated northwest area posting and a Montrose-area opening that has existed for two years.
"I'll rely strongly on my aquatic staff in working out a plan to deal with all our challenges," Hughes said. "I truly believe we have some of the best biologists in the country. They're very passionate about their work."
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
Advertise on JHO / Blogs / Fishing Guide/Outfitter reviews / Facebook - JHO / Gear Reviews / Home, Main Page / Hunting Guide/Outfitter Reviews / Links / Online Store / Photo/Video Gallery / Sponsors / Turkey Scratchins blog / Twitter - Follow JHO / YouTube Channel
"In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a brave and scarce man, hated and scorned. When the cause succeeds, however, the timid join him... for then it costs nothing to be a patriot." -Mark Twain