Tonawanda News

April 30, 2013

Fish in the classroom hit the open water

'Fish in the Classroom' hit the open water

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — At 53 degrees, the water in Olcott Harbor on Friday was almost perfect for releasing a few dozen classroom-raised brown trout into the water.

The fish, which appeared to be less than two inches in length, were poured delicately into the harbor where they began their journey into dangerous waters after spending their first six months in the safety of an aquarium in Newfane High School.

“Fish are usually released from (fish hatchery) pens at night,” Newfane teacher Richard Meyers told his environmental science students who were assembled along two harbor docks. “Birds pick them off pretty easy during the day.”

Because brown trout prefer deeper water, the ones that were released Friday have a sporting chance to survive.

The students in Meyers’ environmental science class released the fish as the culmination of an international program called Trout in the Classroom.

Arlington, Va.-based Trout Unlimited spearheads the program, which sponsors classes to raise fish from fertilized egg to their release. The group works with local fish hatcheries to provide the eggs.

Students throughout the school year monitored the water in the fish tank, from their arrival on Oct. 14 through the day the hatchlings were released. Ammonia levels were closely watched and a daily log detailing water quality and temperature was kept.

Meyers said the Fish in the Classroom program provides students with a strong conservation ethic.

“We talk about good water quality,” Meyers said, noting that Eighteenmile Creek — which empties into the harbor — is a federal Superfund site because of its highly polluted state. “Fish must meet certain conditions to be released.”

Friday’s harbor temperature met the temperature ideal, between 50 and 53 degrees; colder water contains more oxygen, Meyers explained.

After the fish were released, students listened to some guests who discussed the importance of water conservation. Among the guests was Victor DiGiacomo, remedial action plan coordinator for the Niagara County Soil and Water Conservation District.

DiGiacomo explained that Eighteenmile Creek’s pollution is the result of PCBs, lead, copper, aluminum, DDt and other chemicals and metals that were released directly into the creek. He noted that there were few environmental laws in place more than 100 years ago when much of the pollutants were released.

Today, Eighteenmile Creek is “one of the most toxic ecosystems” in the Great Lakes.

“These chemicals don’t go anywhere,” DiGiacomo added. “They will have an impact for a very long time.”

The creek is one of roughly 1,700 superfund sites across the country. Its ranking on the list is fairly high, he added, based on a risk factor: Nearly 45,000 people visit the creek and harbor every year.

Trout in the Classroom, along with the guest lectures, help students understand the complexity of the ecosystem, Meyers said, pointing to nonpoint pollution — such as agricultural runoff — and its effect on water.

“You wouldn’t see fertilizer from a lawn or gas spilled on the roadway enter the creek,” Meyers said, “but all these little bits combine to have an effect. Students learn to minimize what’s getting into the environment. By watching the fish grow, they become aware of conditions that affect the ecosystem.”

This was the first year that Newfane participated in the program. Meyers said the district’s Parent Teacher Student Association played a crucial role in helping to obtain the equipment needed to launch Trout in the Classroom. Along with the Styrofoam-packed aquarium, a special machine that keeps the water cold was purchased.

“I hope to keep the program going,” Meyers said. “Now that I have the equipment, it’s inexpensive to keep going.”