Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Mission trips spawn surprising fish stories

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the July 21, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

A grateful Father David Baronti of the Spokane Mission tips his hat at the plaque mounted at the entrance of the fish hatchery in Guatemala. The plaque thanks the Spokane Aurora Northwest Rotary for their financial assistance in supplying trout eggs and in helping with trout pond repairs necessitated by damage from heavy storms in the mountainous area. (IR photos courtesy of Jerry Monks)

Hand-carrying 36,000 live fish eggs on a 15-hour trip from Spokane to the Highlands of Guatemala is almost guaranteed to be an adventure. Not only because the ice-filled carry-on must be handled with delicate care, but also because every step of the journey introduces unsuspecting situations – and the possibility of an unwitting mishap.

The planned destination for the trout eggs is a fish hatchery in the remote and rugged mountains of Northwestern Guatemala. As noted years ago (IR 4/28/94), the Ixtahuacán hatchery was an economic development project of the Spokane Mission in Guatemala, which had been founded about 30 years earlier. Although the hatchery is operated by native Mayan Indians, the supply of fish eggs continues to come from trout farms in the State of Washington.

In earlier years, the trout eggs were donated by the State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. At the state hatchery on the Little Spokane River, the fertilized eggs were carefully loaded onto screens and placed in layers in a picnic cooler. Non-chlorinated ice was added on top, so the dripping water would keep the eggs cool and moist over the 2-3 day trip to Central America.

Over the years, changes occurred. The “free” donations came to an end. Other suppliers had to be located, and arrangements made to fly the eggs to Spokane and then repack them into a different container that could be taken on board an airliner. In addition, the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) initiated restrictions which complicated the process. Beyond that, stringent Guatemalan notifications and approvals have been imposed.

What was once the relatively simple task of carrying a container onto an airplane became a time-sensitive challenge. Non-chlorinated ice had to be passed through TSA inspection, and the X-ray requirement had to be bypassed. Insofar as the hatching time for live eggs is just a few days, delays can be disastrous. If documentation was delayed or misplaced (which has occurred), the overriding threat is that of missing the flight. The result could well mean a day (or more) delay to reschedule, and the possible hatching (and loss) of the entire shipment.

The transport of 36,000 eggs to Guatemala earlier this year illustrates some of the unexpected situations that can arise.

A request for eggs came to Spokane from Father David Baronti, the resident Spokane priest who serves in Guatemala. He began the approval process in Guatemala. Spokane made contact with Nisqually Trout Farms in Olympia, who had supplied eggs in the past. They offered to package the eggs into six custom-made perforated cylinders, 3 inches in diameter by 9 inches long, so they would fit neatly into a hand carry-on. Each cylinder contained about 6,000 eggs, and they could be kept cool by being packed in ice.

The 7:10 a.m. Delta flight from Spokane went through Minneapolis, Atlanta, and was scheduled to arrive in Guatemala City at 8:34 p.m. For once, it appeared the usual TSA screening, X-ray, and ice issues were going smoothly. Water was drained off the eggs one last time before Delta #909 climbed into the night sky in Atlanta for the last leg of the journey.

Then the (usual) unexpected occurred. About one hour prior to landing in Guatemala City, the pilot came on the speaker system to announce that the plane had turned around and was returning to Atlanta. It would be arriving back in the Atlanta airport just prior to midnight. A volcanic eruption near Guatemala City had spewed so much ash into the sky that it was unsafe for the plane to land. Delta might try again in the early morning.

The fish eggs weren’t due to hatch for another couple of days, so a few hours’ delay would not be catastrophic. But it was still necessary to keep the eggs under (non-chlorinated) ice, and to pour the melted ice water out of the container every few hours. Next move: find an empty couch in an isolated section of the huge Atlanta airport, and wait.

About 3 a.m. it was time to again pour the water off the eggs. Airport activity had slowed down considerably, so a “family” restroom was located for the draining activity. By holding one hand on the tubes to keep them in place, the container could be tipped on its side, so the water could drain out. But as the carry-on was being tipped, the end cap came off one of the tubes and hundreds of small, round, red trout eggs flooded out onto the sink, counter, and surroundings. Another unplanned disaster! What could be next?

After righting the container, the first move was to rush over and lock the door before some unsuspecting woman with A small child would enter the scene. Then the bulk of the spilled eggs were scooped out of the sink and off the counter and returned to the opened cylinder. Some of the eggs managed to slip down the drain and enter the Atlanta recycle system (i.e., where some fingerlings might be undergoing treatment in a few days), but the bulk of the eggs were salvaged.

The next morning’s flight to Guatemala City was without further incident. Father Baronti had stayed over in the city, met the flight, and personally drove the eggs up the mountains to the fish hatchery in Ixtahucán. Subsequent reports verified that the hatching percentage of the eggs was very high – well over 90 percent – so the latest adventure turned out to be inconsequential – just another unexpected fish story.

Trout ponds in the fish hatchery operated by the Mayan Indians in the Spokane Guatemala Mission near Ixtahuacán, Guatemala.

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