About an hour south of Houston on 288, in a modern residential neighborhood in Lake Jackson, stands Sea Center Texas, an aquarium and educational center operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
As aquariums go, it's not the state's fanciest, but it does include exhibits dedicated solely to environments along the Texas coast, from offshore depths to jetties to salt marshes. Outside the facility there is a long boardwalk showcasing a coastal wetlands environment featuring more than 150 different kinds of birds.
It is also one of three centers along the Texas coast dedicated to raising and releasing fish such as red drum, flounder and speckled trout. Each time you buy a fishing license, a boat, a rod or reel or other fishing-related equipment, a portion of your taxes go towards funding of the hatchery program. The other two hatcheries are in Corpus Christi and Palacios, but the Lake Jackson facility is the only one that offers tours of the breeding and rearing process.
The restocking program began in the mid-'80s after a series of harsh winters, combined with vast commercial overfishing, led to a depletion of fish in Galveston and other Gulf Coast bays. The winters, in the late '70s and early '80s, were so harsh that thick ice covered parts of the bays, according to one volunteer.
The Lake Jackson facility was built in 1985 on 75 acres of land donated by DOW Chemical. (The Corpus Christi hatchery is in the cooling ponds of a local power plant). Forty percent of Sea Center Texas' volunteers are employees of DOW, and the water that feeds into various parts of the hatchery is pumped in from DOW's nearby barge canal.
It's possible to take a tour of the hatchery, a working biological laboratory. For most of the fish breeds, natural spawning takes place once a year, in September.
"We were really successful the first few years, so somebody said, 'Let's see if we can fool the fish,'" said tour guide Lee Heiser, a volunteer with more than 500 hours of service to the facility. "Around March they start to decrease the light they're exposed to, and it worked." By manipulating temperatures and light exposure, scientists now get the fish to breed twice a year, producing more than 15 million fingerlings annually at the facility.
In the breeding area, five adult fish (three females and two males) populate each of a dozen large tanks, swimming around in circles and sexin' each other up. On our tour, Heiser whispered that she'd do something for us that the other tour guides don't do -- turn off the lights in the pump room so the fish were easier to see through the one-foot windows on the side of each tank!
Every morning, the fertilized eggs are skimmed from the top of the tanks and then sent to the incubation room, where millions of them wriggle around, microscopic Sea monkeys with the bodies of legless tadpoles. These are called "fry". Small fry.
About 60 hours after hatching, the fry are transported to the 36 acres of grow-out ponds outside. Once they reach fingerling size (about a month after hatching) they can be released in the wild. The ponds are harvested about three times a year.
"The fingerlings are then used to restock Galveston Bay," Heiser said. "Then they're on their own."
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So far this year the center has released about 10 million fingerlings.
Not all the ponds on the facility are nurseries for fingerling fish. Some ponds have full-sized redfish and other breeds, and are used throughout the year for educational purposes. Kids can feed the fish with food from a candy dispenser, or learn to hook and reel on catch-and-release days.
Inside the facility, aquarium feedings take place every Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 a.m. You can FACE YOUR FEARS at the touch tank, or spend half an hour on a bench in front of the most popular area, the Gulf Aquarium, which houses a nurse shark, a grouper and the state record moray eel. A plaque says that the neon-green eel was caught and donated to the facility in 1998 by Houstonian George Flores, when the animal was 46 inches long.
Entrance to Sea Center Texas is free. Check the website for hours, which vary according to the season, and upcoming events.