Fly Fishers' Republic

Wandle Restoration Part XI

February 4, 2007

by Theo Pike

box of fish fry

Trout and Salmon in the Classroom

Apparently, education can be a tricky business at the start of the 21st century.

Health and Safety, those three little words we were talking about last month, don’t just mean effort and administration for those of us arranging river cleanups and other adult events.

They also translate into red tape for teachers. Being conscientious but time-pressured, educators find their cost-benefit analysis coming down far too frequently on the side of keeping the kids in the classroom – even if they’d all like nothing better than an afternoon bunking off to the riverside nature trail together.

In practice, it’s unfortunate that our modern law-life balance often makes it more straightforward to switch on the video, and let Bill Oddie or some other bio-televangelist do the walking. But if you can’t take the kids to the river, to misquote a famous phrase, why not take the river to the kids?

Born in the USA, just like some of the litigious problems it was created to solve, “Trout in the Classroom” aims to do exactly that.

According to Trout Unlimited, it’s a concept that has been operating with great success in North America for at least twenty years, with many hundreds if not thousands of schools involved at one time or another – and supported by almost every environmental conservation and protection agency you can imagine.

On the UK side of the Pond, the Galloway Fisheries Trust imported a “Salmon in the Classroom” version of the project to schools across Scotland as long ago as 1991. Andrew Graham-Stewart of the Rivers and Fisheries Trust of Scotland (RAFTS)tells me that at least 100 schools were involved during 2006 – with a geographical spread from Orkney to the Clyde, and strong support from Scottish Natural Heritage.

In Wales, another prototype of the project developed on the polluted, weir-obstructed Taff from 1998 onwards, and EA Wales are currently partnering the Wye & Usk Foundation and four local primary schools in a “Salmon Homecoming Project” for the little river Arrow.

Myself? I first encountered the concept in the Wandle Valley, here in South London, where Thames 21 and the Wandle Trust first tested the concept at Sutton Grammar, David Bellamy’s old school, in 2001.

Since then, we’ve worked with the Environment Agency to roll it out again to schools in the West Country, Winchester and the southern chalk streams, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, and even further afield. In the catchment of the upper Severn, it proved such a success that it’s now part of a full-on fishing-as-part-of-the-National-Curriculum ASDAN programme. So you could even say that “Trout in the Classroom” has become an integral part of the transatlantic educational landscape – reconnecting kids to their surroundings, no matter how urban, and putting fish back into rivers that might have lost them long ago…

Hang on, was that the bell for the end of the history and geography lessons? Let’s get over to the science lab, and see how we put it all together.

At the most basic level, “Trout in the Classroom” works because it replicates the ideal environment of a trout-zone area of river bed – accentuating the positive aspects like oxygenation and water purity that make survival most likely for little trout, and eliminating the most obvious threats like floods, silt, sculpins and kingfishers.

To achieve this, the equipment is relatively intuitive: a big glass aquarium, about 1 foot wide by 2 feet high by 3 feet long, bleached and filled with clean water, with a substrate of scrupulously-clean pea gravel over a filter mat hooked up to an aerating pump.

That’s inside the tank: from outside, we introduce a cooling coil, circulating water from a brewery beer chiller, calibrated to keep the temperature of the tank at a regular 10 degrees Celsius. Now prop all this up on a stable surface, wrap the tank in a sheet of insulating foam to exclude heat and light, switch on the pumps, and leave it for at least a couple of weeks so that a bacterial bio-filter forms in the gravel – ready to start processing the waste from your little trout when they arrive.

Brown trout spawn at any time between November and March – so for most broodstock and most schools, this means setting up the tank at the end of the autumn term, letting it settle over the Christmas holidays, and then introducing the trout eggs at the start of the spring term.

Ideally, the mother and father of your eggs will have been chosen to represent a good genetic fit for the river where they’ll eventually end up. The Wandle Trust’s eggs come from Sparsholt College in Hampshire, which is located on a sufficiently similar southern chalkstream… but your own mileage, as they say, may vary. And while we’re talking bio-ethics – don’t forget to apply to the EA for Section 30 permission to stock your little fish into your river when that time arrives, usually around the end of March. We all know that illegal movements and introductions of fish do take place, but it’s dangerous, and certainly not for responsible eco-warriors to practise ourselves.

Depending on the age of the eggs when you receive them, hatching may start almost immediately, or it may take a couple of weeks. Your little alevins will remain huddled in the gravels, living off the nutrients in their attached yolks for at least two weeks longer: after this, you can raise the temperature of the tank by a couple of degrees, encouraging them into their “swim-up fry” stage, and get them looking up to the surface for their twice-daily food. (It’s almost impossible to start dry fly training too early).

As the little trout start to metabolise faster and excrete more, siphon-cleaning the gravel and part-changing the water about once a week becomes a good idea, and I’m told you should keep a wary lookout for the stray fry that crawls off to die behind the chiller coil, and starts to affect the whole biochemistry of the tank as it decays.

Not surprisingly, all this TLC – not to mention the lack of predators, spates and external pollution events – should result in a survival rate of at least 20%, which is at least twice the proportion that you’d expect to survive to swim-up fry stage in the wild.

It’s equally unsurprising that “Trout in the Classroom” catches the imagination of kids of all ages (including this 35-year-old), and links almost seamlessly into every module of the National Curriculum: biology, history, maths, English, drama, the lot. If anyone has ever designed a better, more hands-on introduction to ecosystem sensitivity and environmental issues in general, I’ve yet to find it.

And then there’s the media spotlight: sudden feeding frenzies of good-news media chatter when the release days take place, with many kids posing proudly for their local press and TV, and a splurge of eagerly pun-tastic headlines in the territory of “fish” and “frying” that’s as joyfully predictable as the opening of Harrods’ Christmas department on a hot day in August.

By anyone’s reckoning, it’s a welcome form of alternative celebrity. And if “Trout in the Classroom” eventually persuades Little Johnny to stop Big Johnny throwing the family’s old three-piece suite into the river when the dog’s been sitting on it once too often… well, that’s surely gotta be a result, too?

Next month, and probably the month after, I’ll be back with my personal account of what it really means to run a trout tank – in your own home.

In the meantime, for more detailed technical information about the project, or to get involved yourself, click on any of the links I’ve provided above, or contact Gideon Reeve, the Wandle Trust’s “Trout in the Classroom” project co-ordinator, via this link. What that man doesn’t know about keeping trout alive in a tank, it’s likely that no-one does. I may be relying on him.

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