POWNAL — After four months of raising brook trout, students from Pownal Elementary were able to release the fish into the wild on Wednesday.
The students took on the fish project as part of the national Trout in the Classroom program.
Chris Alexopoulos, a fisheries and wildlife specialist with the U.S. Forest Service's Manchester office who is helping the school with this program, said in March that he hoped about 100 of the 200 baby fish would survive to be released into the brook. But the students, with the help of their teacher and advisor Michael Carrano, did even better. Carrano estimated about 190 fish ended up surviving over the four months. For each that died, the students would have a small funeral, complete with bagpipe music.
Alexopoulos said Pownal had the highest survival rate of any of the schools in Vermont, as far as he can tell. About 20 schools across the state participate in the program.
Carrano said there was one incident that could have been fatal to a large number of the fish, had he not acted quickly. He tested the water after noticing some of the fish swimming erratically, and found extremely elevated ammonia levels. He watched over the fish vigilantly, removing those that appeared most affected into what he called a mini intensive care unit of clean water until the levels normalized.
Not all of the fish were released into the brook. A small number of high-risk fish, including Twofor the two-headed trout, who had no real chance of surviving in the wild, were taken by a paraeducator to live in a pond at her home, an environment relatively free of predators. Carrano said that Twofor's second head had never fully developed, and that one day he found the fish had shed it off. Despite that, its body never fully straightened out and it didn't learn to swim properly like its fellow trout.
The fish were released into Broad Brook, which runs through part of the Green Mountain National Forest in Pownal. Students accessed the trail from Williamstown, Mass.
"I've done a lot of work on this stream over the last eight years," Alexopoulos told the students, "It's just a fantastic body of water in terms of water quality and variety of species. This stream has a fantastic population of natural brook trout. You're bringing in a nice supplement to this area."
He said the forest service is putting an emphasis on encouraging recreation and use of the parks through education, and that programs such as this one are critical to that goal. "It is of ongoing importance for them to learn about life cycles, chemistry, all of that," he said.
Pownal is one of four schools in Bennington County that is participating in the program, along with Shaftsbury, Manchester and Dorset. Fisher Elementary School in Arlington and the Maple Street School in Manchester have also expressed interest.
Carrano – who received his undergraduate degree in environmental science and biology, and works as a fly fishing guide for Berkshire Rivers Fly Fishing and an ambassador for the American Museum of Fly Fishing in his spare time – wanted to bring the program to Pownal for a long time. He said he was thrilled when the school was accepted into the program this year.
"This was an awesome program, and we're definitely going to do it again next year," he said.
Alexopoulos was impressed with the Pownal students, and how they had handled raising the trout. "I appreciate all the work the students, and their teachers in mentoring them, have done in raising these fish."
He said he would come back in the fall to check on how the fish are growing, and would be sure to let the students know.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.