Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center is located in scenic Blackwater River State Forest near Holt, Florida. Constructed in 1938 and operated by the Commission since 1940, the Center has stocked millions of bass, bream and catfish into Florida waters. In recent years production of fish has emphasized striped bass and striped bass hybrids (sunshine bass) and advanced fingerling largemouth bass. From the years 2000 to 2007 this facility has produced over 4.3 million striped bass and striped bass hybrids and nearly two million largemouth bass, bream and channel catfish for stocking in public waters. As a result several notable fisheries have developed.
Hatchery produced largemouth bass were stocked into Lake Talquin near Tallahassee for five years beginning in 1999. These bass averaged three inches in length when stocked in the spring. By fall hatchery produced largemouth bass were significantly larger than naturally spawned fish in the lake. October fish samples showed hatchery fish averaging almost nine inches in length compared to just over five inches for naturally produced fish. In addition, angler surveys showed that hatchery largemouth bass contributed from 26 to 39 percent of the fish caught in largemouth bass tournaments on the lake from 2004 to 2006.
Hybrid striped bass, sometimes called sunshine bass, produced at this facility have been stocked in many rivers and lakes in Florida to supplement existing fresh water sport fisheries. As a result of these stockings significant seasonal hybrid fisheries have developed in the Escambia, Choctawhatchee, and Apalachicola rivers and Bear Lake in Santa Rosa County.
Reestablishment of a reproducing population of native striped bass in the Blackwater and Yellow rivers is a joint effort by the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Earlier this century striped bass virtually disappeared from both rivers, probably due to pollution of the Pensacola Bay estuary. Releases of young striped bass each year in the Blackwater River since 1987 and in the Yellow River since 1990 have this trophy fish on the road to recovery, with catches of stripers in the 30 pound class reported by anglers. In 1995 the Institute collected the first mature female striped bass weighing 20 pounds from the Blackwater River. Since then over 150 mature striped bass have been collected from the Blackwater and Yellow rivers. Some of these brood fish were brought to this facility and spawned. To date brood fish from these two systems have produced over six million fry. These fish have been used to enhance or reestablish striped bass populations not only in these systems but in the Apalachicola, Ochlocknee, and Choctawhatchee rivers and Lake Seminole and Lake Talquin in Florida, as well as other river systems in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
In addition to fish production, researchers at the facility have developed numerous systems and designs to improve efficiency of fish production. These include the design and implementation of a water hardening system to optimize water quality for egg and fry incubation, and the development of a water acclimation technique to increase survival rates of fry when transferred from incubation aquaria to grow out ponds. Another technique has been developed using hormone therapy to induce spawning in female striped bass with eggs in early developmental stages. As a result female brood fish which were once considered not ripe enough for fish production can now be used for spawning. Numerous tanks with water recirculation and filtering systems have been set up to hold adult brood fish. By controlling temperature and light cycles in these tanks, brood fish held for extended periods of time have been condition to spawn successfully. Another major project completed was the installation of plastic liners in 10 of the Center's fish production ponds.
The Center is also credited with much of the early work in developing a method for culturing largemouth bass on artificial food. Bass are difficult to raise past the fingerling stage (2 to 3 inches) because of their strong preference for natural food, such as zooplankton. The new technique begins by starting the bass fry on live brine shrimp, then gradually mixing in a high-protein diet of pelleted feed. As the young bass adapt to the mixture, the live food is withdrawn, until they are feeding entirely upon the artificial feed.
By allowing biologists to raise Phase II (6 to 8 inch fish) on artificial feed, it is hoped these new techniques will ensure greater survival of bass stocked into the wild. This is especially important in waters where there is inadequate food for juvenile fish and where massive cannibalism occurs. Stocking bass at a larger size, and properly timing the stocking, may allow biologists to bypass this natural ecological "bottleneck" and hopefully improve survival of the stocked fish until they reach the angler's creel.
Past research on bass and bream was directed toward understanding how these popular sport fish relate to various habitat types in the Escambia and Yellow rivers. Also, the bass and bream research team evaluated the effects of size regulations on bass in the Escambia River delta marsh. The Escambia River delta is a very popular fishing spot for anglers living in the extreme western end of the Panhandle.
The Blackwater facility has also been heavily involved with much of a statewide river monitoring project which provided background fish assemblage information needed to evaluate the long-term impacts of development and pollution.
The Center also serves as a reservoir of information regarding the status of Florida's rare and endangered fishes most of which occur in the northwestern section of the state. Personnel of the Institute also maintain a computerized bibliography of references to Florida's freshwater fishes and the ecology of the state's rivers. This information is available to the public and scientists alike. Personnel of the facility have published numerous scientific papers on fish production methods, fish biology, and stream ecology.
The Center is also currently working on an illustrated book of Florida's freshwater fishes. The book will offer color photographs of each fish, and a description of each species, its life history and distribution within the state.
The Center also manages six very popular fishing lakes in the northwestern section of the state. Management practices on Stone, Bear, Hurricane, Victor, Juniper and Karick lakes include special fishing regulations, water quality enhancement, fish stocking, fish attractors, vegetation control, access improvements, and lake drawdowns. Karick, Hurricane and Bear lakes lie within Blackwater River State Forest and are managed in cooperation with the State Division of Forestry. Lake Stone, in Escambia County, near Century, is managed in cooperation with Escambia County. Juniper Lake is near DeFuniak Springs in Walton County, while Lake Victor is in Holmes County, near New Hope. Brochures describing theses lakes are available from the Center.
An important function of the facility is providing information to the public regarding all aspects of Florida fish and fishing. An updated Checklist is available which lists the occurrence of fishes in the state, with emphasis upon those inhabiting the state's major rivers. The Institute is an excellent place to begin with questions regarding the biology of bass, bream, striped bass and the status of Florida fishes, especially those of the Panhandle.
The Center also provides office space for several personnel from our Wildlife Division. Wildlife personnel are currently working on both game and non-game species including deer, turkey, black bear, gopher tortoise, and red-cockaded woodpecker.
Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center
8384 Fish Hatchery Road
Holt, FL 32564