B  U  F  F  A  L  O      N  E  W  S        buffalonews.com

Sandra Smith Cunningham and her seventh-grade science students at Nichols School begin to move about 160 newly hatched brown trout from a net to an aquarium.
Derek Gee / Buffalo News

Wild about trout, Nichols kids are egg-static

Students nurture fish from before they hatch to learn about ecology

News Staff Reporter

Nothing like a tank full of brown trout to get a bunch of seventh-graders excited — really.

After all, they’ve raised the fish from eggs, and they watched them hatch.

They’ll feed the fish, check the water temperature and monitor their development until it’s time to release them into a stream in the spring — and learn a few things along the way.

“There’s a sense of ownership of this project,” said Nichols School science teacher Sandra Smith Cunningham. “People care about what’s going on.”

The program is a collaboration with Trout Unlimited, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The goals are to teach children about the environment and local watersheds, water quality and conservation. Nichols, which is into its second year of raising trout, is the only school in Erie and Niagara counties to have the program.

“There are very obvious curriculum applications,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham is teaming with English teacher Deborah Regan Howe, and their 47 seventh-graders take turns writing scientific journal entries of their observations of the fish and the tank. They also write entries for the Web site, nicholstrout.org, and Howe gives them creative writing assignments on the project. Sixth- and eighth-grade students also help out in the classroom or explore trout anatomy.

When the inch-long fry were released from the hatching basket this week, Howe was urging her students to look at how many fish swam to the bottom and how many stayed together, and to think about what it would feel like to swim in a large area after being confined.

“They’ve had some fun with it,” Howe said.

Howe has been watching especially carefully, because she will be overseeing the project when Cunningham goes on a three-month sabbatical in January.

Cunningham said that years ago, she came across a school in California that was raising salmon. She was captivated by the idea and knew that her students would be, too. Each year, she put that down as one of her teaching goals but did not know how to go about it. Then a colleague who does a lot of fishing mentioned the Trout Unlimited program to her.

“We had been looking for a possible classroom,” said Chuck Godfrey of the Western New York Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “The word didn’t seem to be getting out.”

Start-up costs are about $2,000. Cunningham was able to purchase the tank, cooler and supplies through a grant from the McCarthy Family Fund, started by Nichols alumnus Dennis McCarthy.

Godfrey said Trout Unlimited, which he said is not a “fishing” club, but a cold-water fisheries conservation organization, is looking for other schools to join the program, and the group may be able to help with some of the start-up costs.

“Anything that we can do to educate the public, and especially kids, about cold-water conservation and being stewards of the environment, we like to do,” he said.

But raising trout is not as easy as it may sound. Water temperature must be kept at 47 or 48 degrees, the tank must be monitored, the water needs to be changed regularly, and fish must be fed over school holidays.

“I had nightmares the whole first year,” Cunningham said with a laugh.

As in the wild, not every egg survives in the tank. Cunningham and Godfrey picked up 200 eggs from a state hatchery in Randolph in October. She estimates that there were more than 150 fish released from the hatching basket into the tank, which is many more than last year. Last spring, about 50 trout, up to 3 inches long, were released into Ellicott Creek in Amherst under a DEC permit.

Once released, no one knows exactly what happens to them — but perhaps that’s another assignment for Howe’s English students.