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A True Fish Tale: Domtar Makes Paper *and* Raises Fish for Local Rivers

Domtar’s Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania mill is located on the headwaters of the scenic Clarion River. | Image credit: Domtar

It may seem odd to hear about thousands of brook, brown and rainbow trout living in a paper mill, but it is certainly no fish tale in the traditional sense.

Located near Pennsylvania’s Allegheny forest on the headwaters of the scenic Clarion River, Domtar’s Johnsonburg mill boasts a long and rich history of papermaking — and more recently — of raising fish to help support local rivers.

Back in 1992, Rick Zelehoski, now a retired maintenance manager, had an idea to turn an old filtration building on the mill grounds into a fish hatchery. To his surprise, his bosses agreed to the idea, which launched a cooperative between the company, employees, retirees and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The filtration building was originally erected in the early 1900s and has gone through significant renovations. Volunteers even built two raceways — 88 feet long, 4 feet wide — that sit above the floor and allow growing fingerlings to swim and flop about.

When the fish grow to an appropriate size, they are released into local waterways. In fact, 10,000 fish are released annually, and they’ve developed quite a reputation.

Sign outside the Johnsonburg Mill’s fish hatchery, which began in 1992.

“Our fish are talked about all over the region,” Zelehoski said. “Ours are bigger. People know they came from our nursery.”

Working with the commission and state regulators, Domtar works to meet stringent aquaculture standards. In fact, the cooperative nursery has received awards from the state for its success.

Zelehoski, who retired earlier this year, added: “This is a fun, unique program that is enjoyable for Domtar employees. And we’re doing our small part to help improve our community and the environment.”

Rick Zelehoski with brown trout.

The decline of the fish population dates back to the 1800s, when pioneers began migrating to the United States. Back then, there were no regulations on the number of fish that could be captured or how big they had to be kept. In 1870, fish eggs were collected, hatched and released into waters where fish populations were in decline. These programs came to be known as spawning stations. In 1871, the U.S. Fish Commission was established and would later come to be known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the National Fish Hatchery System.

Today, fish hatcheries are noted for their contributions to repopulating endangered fish, providing research on disease, restoring deteriorating habitats, and providing recreational fishing opportunities.

Charles DeWitt, quality and technical manager at Johnsonburg Mill, said the nursery is also a highlight for visitors to the mill and helps open conversations about Domtar’s commitment to sustainability and the surrounding mill communities.

“This is a program that our employees take pride in,” DeWitt said. “People in the community enjoy it. And the program sheds a light on the broad range of work Domtar does to support sustainability and our communities.”

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Recent updates to the hatchery have facilitated visits for groups touring the mill, and area students have helped spread the word about the mill’s efforts to support local wildlife. Today, up to 30 volunteers help feed and maintain the good health of the fish. Some of the volunteers are current employees, while others are Domtar retirees who enjoy doing their part for the environment — including Zelehoski, the man behind it all.

For more unique stories focused on Domtar’s sustainability work read the company’s 2017 Sustainability Report, or visit the Domtar Newsroom

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