Each year, thousands of visitors to the Nebraska State Fair enjoy the aquarium at the Nebraska Game and Parks Outdoor Encounter exhibit.
They see common fish, odd-looking fish, bigger fish and smaller fish. They see fish they’ve caught and fish they wish they could catch. They see invasive fish and fish that don’t occur in their part of the state.
“We have a lot of different fish species, from north to south and east to west,” said Tony Barada, Game and Parks’ fisheries management assistant division administrator. “We’re trying to provide the diversity of fish that’s in Nebraska both in our lakes and reservoirs and in the rivers and streams.”
Curiosity may be what draws people to the aquarium to see 100 to 150 fish, representing 30 to 35 species.
“It’s a lot of fish they’ve never seen before,” said Brad Newcomb, Game and Parks’ southwest fisheries supervisor. “Since we have 30-plus species of fish, most people haven’t seen that number of species.”
Take the shovelnose sturgeon, for example, Newcomb said.
“Most people have never seen one,” he said. “You get a reaction of, ‘What are those?’ 'I’ve never seen those!’ 'Where did these come from?’ ”
The fish come from all over the state.
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During the week leading up to the opening of the fair, which opened Friday, fisheries biologists from across the state collected fish from reservoirs, lakes, rivers and hatcheries. Others were at the fairgrounds preparing the aquarium for deliveries of fish. Between Monday and Thursday, staff collected fish, transferred them from boats to hauling tanks, delivered them to the fair and transferred them to the aquarium.
In all, about 25 Game and Parks fisheries staffers from around the state are involved in the effort. They also are available to answer questions about the fish during the fair’s 11-day run in Grand Island, which ends Sept. 2.
“It’s a team effort and it takes a lot of coordination, especially from our staff stationed at our Kearney office,” Barada said. “In the end, it’s a pretty cool product.”
Most of the fish are captured by electrofishing, a method in which specialized equipment administers an electric current in the water to temporarily stun the fish.
Each of the four districts has a list of fish to collect. The northwest district gets northern pike and yellow perch, and the northeast district collects sturgeon, sauger, shorthead redhorse, gar, buffalo, freshwater drum and Asian carp. Trout come from the Grove Lake Trout Rearing Station, and paddlefish, blue catfish, channel catfish and minnow species for prey come from the North Platte Fish Hatchery. The southwest district gets redear sunfish and rock bass while the southeast captures the large flathead catfish used in a weight-guessing contest, wipers and blue catfish. Southwest staff located in Kearney collect some of the most common fish — bluegill, crappie and largemouth bass — because they are plentiful near Grand Island.
The 30-foot-long, 5,800-gallon aquarium sits on a trailer so it can be transported and enjoyed by visitors to expos at Ponca State Park and Fort Kearny State Recreation Area.
“The aquarium is really the centerpiece of the Outdoor Encounter,” Barada said. “The location is ideal as it draws a lot of attention from fairgoers as soon as they enter the fairgrounds. We encourage folks to swing by and take a look, and maybe learn something about fish in Nebraska.”