A School Tale of Two Fish

By Eli Heilker and Alan Raflo.  Mr. Heilker, a senior in the English Department at Virginia Tech, worked on this article as part of a fall 2013 internship with the Virginia Water Resources Research Center.

Thanks to Jim Cummins, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, for his help with this article.

Human beings have caught, sold and eaten fish for centuries, as well as modifying their habitats physically (such as with dams) and chemically (with pollutants). These two sets of forces have put pressure on many fish species, causing their populations to decrease. Two examples of such species are the American Shad and the Brook Trout. Both were once very common in the eastern part of the United States. But both species are the focus of restoration efforts that combine government agencies and public schools to help the populations increase again and make people aware of the species’ status.

The American Shad used to be a flourishing species of fish along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Canada. They were a food source not only to humans but also to birds of prey (such as bald eagles and ospreys) and other fish (such as Striped Bass and even minnows that feed on American Shad eggs). In 1898, the American Shad harvest in the Potomac River was nearly 4 million pounds. But by the 1970s, damming and pollution of rivers had caused the American Shad population to decline to well less than 500,000 pounds, and led to a moratorium on American Shad harvesting in 1982. Now, according to a July 2013 article by Jim Cummins, of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB), the Potomac River’s American Shad population is improving thanks both to a partnership to increase population levels and to the activities and enthusiasm of students and their teachers who are welcoming the fish into their classrooms.


“American shad.” Image by Duane Raver, 2008. Made available for public use by the US Fish and Wildlife Services National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/landingpage/collection/natdiglib, 21 October 2013.

Mr. Cummins says that from 1995 to 2002, the ICPRB, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several partner organizations, led a shad-stocking program for the Potomac that resulted in 17 million American Shad having been stocked and ultimately reproducing by themselves. The program has been successful enough that, since 2003, the Potomac River has been the egg source for many other shad-restoration programs. According to Mr. Cummins, the restoration effort has been successful not only because of increasing numbers but also because of thousands of students and teachers have been involved in raising American Shad fry through the “Schools-in-Schools” partnership.

The ICPRB’s “Schools-in-Schools” partnership, which began in 1996, helps students hatch and raise American Shad fry in their classrooms, and then stock them into the Potomac River.  Working with Living Classrooms of the National Capitol Region (https://www.livingclassrooms.org/), the program has had many positive outcomes: students have been enthusiastic about raising the fish, watching their rapid development over just 4-5 days, and turning the fish loose; students also have been motivated to create poems, math, and artwork about the American Shad; and some students have become teachers by giving American Shad presentations to younger grades, parents, siblings, neighbors, and even their whole community. From just three schools participating in 1996, as of 2013 the Potomac River program has grown to involve over 50 schools and tens of thousands of students in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. In addition, the program has been adopted by shad-restoration projects in Delaware, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Another fish species whose populations have significantly declined is the Brook Trout, the only trout native to much of the eastern United States. Strong Brook Trout populations indicate that the ecosystem of their stream or river is healthy and the water quality is good, while a decline in Brook Trout population is an alert that the ecosystem might be inadequate in water quality or habitat.


“Brook trout.” Image by Duane Raver, 2008. Made available for public use by the US Fish and Wildlife Services National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/landingpage/collection/natdiglib, 21 October 2013.

According to a report filed by Trout Unlimited for the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, “In pre-Colonial times, [B]rook [T]rout were present in nearly every coldwater stream and river in the eastern United States.” This report asserts that the Brook Trout populations have severely declined throughout history due to water pollution, deforestation, and use of rivers and streams as assets for industries. The report quantifies the decreases in Brook Trout populations in subwatersheds in the eastern United States. According to this analysis, the current Brook Trout subwatershed status is as follows:

Classification Description US Eastern Range Subwatershed Percentage Virginia Subwatershed Percentage
Intact 90-100% historical habitat occupied by self-reproducing Brook Trout 5% 9%
Reduced 50-90% historical habitat occupied by self-reproducing Brook Trout 9% 20%
Greatly Reduced 1-50% historical habitat occupied by self-reproducing Brook Trout 27% 14%
Present, Qualitative Data Present, but no quantitative data on populations 19% 2%
Extirpated Brook Trout have vanished from this subwatershed 21% 38%
Absent, Unclear History No brook trout currently present, historical presence unknown 6% 0%
Unknown, No Data No quantitative or qualitative data exists 13% 16%

In 2005, a group of public and private entities created the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV), which drives local efforts to build partnerships to improve fish habitats. EBTJV is a project under the National Fish Habitat Partnership, an organization that addresses crises such as the loss and degradation of fish habitats. EBTJV’s goals, according to its website, are to assess range-wide Brook Trout populations, identify key threats to Brook Trout habitats, and plan conservation strategies to protect, enhance and restore Brook Trout.

One of the partners of EBTJV is Trout Unlimited (TU). TU is a non-profit organization with a national office in Arlington, Va., whose goals, according to its website, are to protect, preserve, and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and watershed.

TU has a nationwide program for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms called “Trout in the Classroom” (TIC) in which students and teachers raise trout from fertilized eggs in tanks designed to accommodate trout according to their natural habitat requirements. All during this time, the students monitor the tanks’ temperature and pH balance and record their measurements. At the end of the school year, the students release the trout fry into approved water bodies.  According to TU’s website, in Virginia, as of 2013, “Trout in the Classroom” was currently in its eighth year and had more than 200 classrooms throughout the state.

American Shad and Brook Trout are not the only fish in human schools. Another nationwide fish-in-school program is “Salmon in the Classroom,” a program in which students raise salmon eggs to fry stage in their classrooms, much like they do with trout in TIC. Also, like in TIC, once the fish are old enough, the students stock them into a local lake designated for the program. Some programs even involve students raising other forms of marine life that are not fish. For example, Norfolk Collegiate School, in Norfolk, Va., is one participant in an oyster restoration project.  Students raise oyster spat near a dock and monthly monitor their growth, the water salinity, nutrient quantities and pH levels from about September to April, after which they turn the spat over to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which decides in which river system to stock them.

Throughout human history, fish have often been taken for granted. As a result, some populations of fish species that people historically depended on or valued, such as American Shad and Brook Trout, have severely decreased over the last couple of centuries. But, while humans are capable of reducing a species’ population, we can also increase species populations by restoration projects and by bringing fish to school to try and excite the youth of our own population.

Works Cited

Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Salmon in the Classroom.”  Online at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=educators.salmonclassroom. Published 2013. Accessed 9 October 2013.

Cummins, Jim. “How Students From Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia Are Helping to Restore American Shad in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.” Water Resources Impact. Accessed 30 August 2013.

Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Web site.  Online at http://www.easternbrooktrout.net. Accessed 18 October 2013.

Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. “Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats” (2006, 40 pages). Online at http://easternbrooktrout.org/reports/eastern-brook-trout-status-and-threats/view. Accessed 18 September 2013.

National Fish Habitat Partnership. “About NFHP.” Online at http://fishhabitat.org/about. Accessed 9 October 2013.

Norfolk Collegiate School. “Marine biology class continues oyster restoration project.” Online at https://www.norfolkcollegiate.org/RelId/705825/infogroup/3979/ISvars/default/Marine_biology_class_continues_oyster_restoration_project.htm. Accessed 9 October 2013.

Trout Unlimited Web site.  Online at http://www.tu.org. Accessed 18 October 2013.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service – Pacific Region. “Salmon in the Classroom.” Online at http://usfwspacific.tumblr.com/salmonintheclassroom. Accessed 7 October 2013.

Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited. “Trout in the Classroom.” Online at http://www.vctu.org/education/trout-in-the-classroom/. Accessed 2 October 2013.

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