ERWIN — Erwin National Fish Hatchery Manager John Robinette has come full circle in his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I started my career here, and I’m going to end my career here,” he said.
Robinette is set to officially retire from the Fish and Wildlife Service at the end of the year, and Thursday marked his last day on the job. During his more than 30 years with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Robinette worked at several facilities and refuges throughout the Southeast.
The Kingsport native got his start at the Erwin National Fish Hatchery in 1979 after graduating from Tennessee Tech University, working as a biological technician. He left in the spring of 1981 for an assistant manager post at the Pisgah National Fish Hatchery in North Carolina. In 1983, Robinette took a job as a wildlife biologist at the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. After five years there, he moved on to become a biologist with the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex, which administers seven wildlife refuges along 100 miles of coastline from Georgia to South Carolina.
In 2008, Robinette returned to the area and facility where he got his start after he was hired on as manager of the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.
“It’s a great experience,” Robinette said of working at the hatchery. “The thing I like about East Tennessee more than anything is that we seem to have a great sense of community. A lot of people talk that talk and talk about sense of community and we’ve got to pull together and do this and do that. Few places do it, but we’ve had projects where the county and the city and the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service and all these groups come together to get something done.”
Robinette said the far-reaching economic impact provided by the hatchery, which has the primary goal of shipping trout eggs to 18 states from the Southwest to Maine, has also stood out for him.
“We supply rainbow trout eggs for a lot of the fisheries programs across the nation, and that begins right here in our community,” Robinette said. “If you catch a rainbow trout in New Mexico, there’s a really good chance that the genesis of that trout that you caught started in your own community.”
He also said working with the Fish and Wildlife Service during its involvement in a number of projects, including restorations of the American Chestnut Tree and the Appalachian Brook Trout, has been “rewarding.” Robinette commended the crew at the Erwin National Fish Hatchery, adding that its employees are involved in “official and unofficial” programs, such as the Wounded Warriors Project and Project Healing Waters.
“They’re a real asset to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and they’re a real asset to this community,” he said.
Another thing Robinette said he will take away is how the community and legislators on both sides of the aisle came together when the Erwin hatchery, along with other mitigation hatcheries across the country, was previously threatened with closure due to federal budget cuts.
“If it hadn’t been for the people of East Tennessee coming together and saying ‘No. For our community, economically, if nothing else, this makes no sense. This is a productive program and we’re going to keep it. It’s been here since 1897, and it’s going to stay here.’ They’re the ones who stopped that.”
Norm Heil, director of the of the Warm Springs Fish Health Center in Georgia, will succeed Robinette as manager of the Erwin hatchery. Heil also has prior experience working at the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.
Robinette said he and his wife have already purchased a home in Kingsport, where he will relocate upon his retirment. He said they plan to do some hiking, traveling and catching up with family.
“We have grandchildren in Savannah, Ga., and Castle Rock, Colo., and we have missed soccer games and plays and stuff like that,” Robinette said. “We ain’t missing any more of them. We’ll be free to travel wherever we need to travel and to go wherever we need to go, and we’re going to enjoy that.”
And Robinette said he has no intentions of leaving fish in his rearview mirror. He plans on doing a little fishing in his free time.
“There’s some walleye out there that are waiting for me to retire,” he said.