The little brook trout fingerlings proved to be good teachers.
For the last seven months, a group of Crestwood High School students reared the trout from eggs up until they were released in the Big Wapwallopen Creek last week. It was a bittersweet end to a bond that developed between the young trout and the students, but the lessons gained from raising the fish will last a lifetime.
Crestwood is one of four schools in Luzerne County that participate in the Trout in the Classroom program — a joint venture between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. With eggs provided by the PFBC, students raise brook trout in a classroom aquarium while learning about a myriad of subjects — ecology, biology and chemistry to name a few.
And then there’s the enthusiasm.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” said Allison Kaminski, a senior who has been involved with the program for two years. “We’d always get the eggs around my birthday and then we’d have a countdown to the release date.”
This year nearly 250 classes across the state participated in the program, which has grown rapidly since it first began in 2006. According to Amidea Daniel, Trout in the Classroom coordinator for the PFBC, the program touches on many subjects taught in school and provides lessons beyond the classroom setting.
“Learning about the life cycle of the brook trout connects children with their local watersheds and their communities,” Daniel said. “We’ve seen students who usually don’t participate in class be the first ones to volunteer for this. It gives them a reason to learn about our coldwater resources.”
Biology teacher Fran Gough, who brought the program to Crestwood five years ago, said those connections aren’t limited to the watershed and community.
“For kids who aren’t into sports, this is a way for them to connect with their school. It’s a responsibility that they take pride in,” Gough said. “After every weekend the kids are at the aquarium first thing Monday morning to check on the trout. I incorporate it into all my classes because the kids want to know what’s going on with the trout.”
And they take it very seriously.
This school year, the Crestwood students released 158 fingerlings from the 259 eggs they received for an astounding 61 percent survival rate. Gough said the state average survival rate is 2 percent, while Crestwood’s rate last year was 36 percent.
“Last year we had water problems with ammonia,” said senior Kira Hoch, who oversees the program with Kaminski. “It’s nerve-wracking to see that ammonia spike, but it was because the filter needed to be changed. We changed it at the right time this year and had no problems.
Hoch said her experience with the TIC program has provided lessons that she often thinks about while trout fishing.
“It’s interesting when you actually know where the trout belong and why they need good water quality,” Hoch said. “It really gives you a better understanding and a different perspective.”
That’s one reason why brook trout are used for the program, said Daniel. Not only is the brook trout the state fish, but it’s also the only trout that’s native to Pennsylvania and one that is facing challenges form the impacts of poor water quality in many watersheds.
“The brook trout link kids to the water resource,” Daniel said. “They see how vital water quality is to brook trout and they gain a hands-on understanding of how it all works.”
With Kaminski and Hoch graduating this year, Crestwood’s TIC program will be turned over to freshmen Bray Vanderhoff and Zach Biros. Both have fishing backgrounds and they were each eager to carry on the trout-raising tradition at their school.
“Right away I wanted to do it,” Biros said. “It’s interesting to see the eggs when they come in, which are the size of BB’s, and it makes you look at trout differently when you see how they started out.”
While the students raise the trout for several months, preparations for the program take place year-round. It begins in June with a workshop for teachers new to the program, and the Daniel meets with staff from the Pleasant Gap hatchery in Centre County to determine when the eggs will be spawned and shipped. With help from Trout Unlimited volunteers, shipping boxes are packed with food and curriculum materials and in November the eggs are added — 200 per school, and the boxes are shipped out.
Throughout the school year Daniel keeps in contact with all participating teachers to address any issues that arise with water quality or equipment, and then release dates are scheduled for April and May.
The cost per school to participate in the program is between $930 and $1,200, Daniel said, depending on how much teachers raise in donations.
“There are usually plenty of businesses willing to partner with schools on this,” she said. “Last school year, teachers raised $102,613 in donations to support the program. It’s really been a success.”