Feeding a few tropical fish in a small aquarium is one thing; feeding thousands of small fish in a commercial fish hatchery is another. It is a major task.
That's why operators of fish hatcheries across the country are turning to the Garon Company here for expert assistance in making easier the job of feeding smolts to the proper size for release to grow into catchable fish in lakes and rivers and the Pacific Ocean.
The company is the manufacturer of an automatic system for mechanically feeding young fish, a system that eliminates all human contact but one - filling the feed hopper periodically with pellet-size feed.
Gene Dils, president of the company, explained that the power equipment in each unit is standardized, but that the equipment itself is customized to meet specific requirements of each hatchery.
Although originally designed for feeding in the Northwest of salmon smolts, the Garon feeders are now used, for instance, in Michigan hatcheries where muskellunge, or muskies, and northern pike are raised for state waters. Coho salmon from the Northwest are also raised for the delight of Michigan anglers.
There are now some 220 feeder units, sold for $11,000 each, in operation at 26 hatcheries, in California, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, as well as in Michigan. One hatchery of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, has 28 units in place.
A new hatchery, Mr. Dils pointed out, takes from two to three years' planning , and it is during that time that feeder requirements are decided on, so that customized units can be produced.
One such new hatchery is being planned for California, in Sonoma County near Geyersville, and the Garon Company has just recently received an order from the Idaho Department of Game for a planned hatchery at Twin Falls.
As might be expected, Washington State has been the best customer, with feeders in place at 15 hatcheries operated by the Department of Fisheries. The Washington department, in fact, was the first buyer of the Garon system, about 12 years ago, for installation at the hatchery at Kalama, Wash.
Dils's company did not originate the idea of an automated hatchery feeding system. It might be said to have come in ''over the transom,'' as it were.
The feeder idea was the development of a man named Percy Louden, who came to Dils in 1968, convinced him of the soundness of the idea, and then went with Dils to demonstrate the idea to the Kalama hatchery people, who, even before a single unit had been built, agreed to buy six units.
Because he was then 75 years old, Mr. Louden sold his rights to the Garon Company and for a time acted as consultant to it.
Operation of the fish feeder system is governed by a 24-hour clock which can be programmed to feed as frequently as every 30 minutes, or to skip feeding on any day, or even all days, of the week. A timer controls the actual feeding and the frequency with which feed is tossed into the pond.
The system is also programmed to overcome a trait among fish of greed and aggressiveness in eating. ''When the first feed hits the water,'' Dils said, ''the aggressive fish are there to get their share, while the more timorous hold back. What the aggressive fish do not get simply falls to the bottom and is wasted.''
The answer was to design the system to distribute a portion of the feed which the aggressive fish get immediately, ''and the system then opens again in a few seconds to feed the more timid fish.''
On a daily basis, the amount of feed thrown to the smolts can run as high as 150 pounds, or as little as 10 pounds, a decision of the hatchery manager.
At the Springfield, Ore., hatchery of the Weyerhaeuser Company, salmon smolts are fed the maximum load twice a day. This hatchery is part of the timber company's successful Oregon salmon ranching program.
The options available to hatchery managers allow feeding in whatever manner is desired, and give a close approximation to hand feeding.
The Garon feeders have been patented in both the United States and Canada, although as yet no sales have been made in Canada.