Bob Labuski remembers the early morning line of cars snaking out of Connetquot River State Park Preserve and onto Sunrise Highway. Anglers hustled to get into the park to secure fishing permits and a choice spot on the bank.
After the park's fish hatchery was shut down in 2008, the number of anglers visiting the park ground nearly to a halt.
Labuski, chairman of the Friends of Connetquot, said that after the hatchery closed, one nearby fishing supply store was shuttered, too.
Soon, the hatchery is expected to show signs of life again, and park supporters, led by Labuski's group, are excited for the Connetquot's fishing community to return.
"A lot of future revenues can be realized, and a lot of enjoyment by members of the public, for decades and decades," said Richard Remmer, a board member of the Friends of Connetquot, a fundraising nonprofit that was awarded a $150,000 state regional economic development grant last month to help revive the hatchery and restore a 1700s-era grist mill at the state park.
The hatchery lost its permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation at the end of 2008 because infectious pancreatic necrosis, a disease that affects mostly young trout but not humans, had proliferated in the river. In late 2006, the DEC tested the river and hatchery and found contamination. When the water was tested again in 2008, there was no sign of the disease, but regulators required several years of quarantine.
Since then, some grown fish have been routinely added to the river, and a number of die-hard local fishermen still cast rods there each year.
Remmer said between the money that used to come from educational tours of the hatchery and fishing permit fees, the park has lost about $300,000 in annual revenue since the hatchery closed.
"Now we're down to 1,000 fishermen a year," Remmer said. "At one point we had 13,000."
A DEC spokeswoman said the agency is working with Friends of Connetquot to determine what kind of permit the group will need to reopen the hatchery. But instead of using water from the river, the park will probably be required to use groundwater from a well to cultivate the fish so there's no chance of contamination.
"We need clean water, and we need to make sure disease isn't brought in on the feet or boots of workers as well," Remmer said, adding that there will be a hand-washing station and footbath in the secured area of the hatchery. The group also plans to build a 50-foot-deep, 10-inch-wide well. The entire project is expected to cost $150,000.
The group also plans to restore the Oakdale Grist Mill, a decaying, historic mill in the state park, which once was the South Side Sportsmen's Club. Remmer expects that project to cost about $400,000.
"Not only is it a goal of historic preservation, but hopefully it will generate jobs and benefit the local economy," Remmer said.