A former Mercer County fish farm will soon be transformed into a waterfowl paradise as the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Ducks Unlimited tackle the habitat project.
The 130-acre site in northwestern Pennsylvania, near Grove City, was home to myriad ponds and impoundments that were created after the original wetlands was changed via an array of dikes, drainage pipes and ditch networks.
The fish farm was created in the 1970s, and the ponds were home to bait fish and a variety of game fish species. The operation ceased in the 1990s, and it’s been essentially abandoned ever since.
Aquaculture isn’t a big industry in Pennsylvania, and Ducks Unlimited regional biologist Jim Feaga said the project is a unique opportunity to conduct a large-scale wetlands restoration already in close proximity to other waterfowl hot spots.
The site, formerly known as the Hohmann Farm, is in Ducks Unlimited’s Great Lakes/Northwest Pennsylvania International Conservation Priority Area. It’s within 30 miles of Pymatuning Reservoir and 60 miles of Lake Erie, major stopover areas for millions of migratory birds.
The site was acquired by the Game Commission, Ducks Unlimited and Waterfowl USA in 2019 and was recently incorporated into State Game Lands 151.
While the project has potential, challenges also exist.
“This location has several miles of berms and piping, and a lot of it we’ll be removing,” Feaga said. “The bait fish farm ponds were built with existing wetlands, and the material was used to create the berms. We’re going to take that material and push it back into the ponds to make several large wetland units more attractive to waterfowl.”
By transforming the open, deep ponds into a shallow-water emergent habitat, Feaga said the project will provide food, cover and breeding habitat for a variety of waterfowl. The site is currently home to some birds, including diving ducks, but when the work is completed Feaga said the site will be restored to a “functioning habitat.”
Another portion of the former fish farm consisted of a forested wetland that was altered with berms.
In addition, after the farm closed, beavers moved in and plugged the primary channel — Black Creek — that flows through the site. The resulting flooding killed much of the vegetation, and Feaga said work will be done to restore the forested wetlands.
Jason Amory, information and education specialist for the Game Commission’s Northwest Region, said that when the work is completed, the site will be transformed into three or four “moist soil units” and the water levels will be manipulated to control invasive plant species.
As a result, Amory said, desirable plant species will be allowed to flourish, making the site more attractive to waterfowl.
“When people see us drawing down impoundments, they sometimes think we’re not doing anything. By reducing the water level, it exposes the seed beds of beneficial plants and allows them to grow,” he said.
Ducks Unlimited has already received a $165,000 grant from the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation to restore the wetlands by 2023.
The waterfowl group is leveraging this gift in public and private grant applications to raise the additional dollars required to complete the project.
When the wetlands are restored, Feaga said the Game Commission will have the ability to control water flow to replicate natural wetland flooding cycles.
The project is currently in the permitting phase, and a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources helped cover the cost for a survey as well as the original purchase. Feaga hopes the design and permitting phases can be completed by the summer, and then wetland construction can start.
The site is open for hunting and fishing, and Feaga believes there are fish remaining from when the site was in aquaculture.
“They were raising grass carp and other species there, and if grass carp get released into the environment, they can cause damage,” he said. “We’re taking steps to make sure whatever was there stays there, and if it’s a species of no value, it will be disposed.”
To avoid any significant fish die-offs when the ponds are drained, Feaga said a fishing derby for youths and veterans is being considered, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission may be asked to aid with managing and transporting high-value species of fish.
Amory said the Game Commission is considering managing the property as a regulated shooting area for waterfowl hunting, which could include special hunts for youth and disabled hunters.
“We don’t want people to pour in there on the first day and shoot all of the ducks and they don’t come back,” he said. “We’re considering several different options to manage the hunting pressure so we can provide a better quality experience for everyone.”