Fish swim in schools, everyone knows that, but few know the rainbow trout in Liberty Lake were once enrolled at a West Valley middle school.
Earlier this month, 245 trout raised by students of West Valley School District’s City School were released into Liberty Lake by state Fish and Wildlife officials.
The trout are raised in captivity all the way up to three years of age, which means the rainbows head to the big pond about the same time their middle school caretakers take the plunge from City School to high school.
“We start out with about 250 eggs, and we raise them here until they’re about 5 or 6 inches long. That’s the fry stage,” said Riley Bowles, student manager of the school’s 600-gallon trout tank.
Once the fish reach half a foot in length, Bowles and a small crew of student workers at the City School aquaculture laboratory will transfer the trout to a pond at the West Valley School District’s outdoor learning center on Upriver Drive. From there, the fish are transported by state Fish and Wildlife officials to a nearby lake.
“Fish and Wildlife pretty much gives us the eggs,” said Matthew Phillipy, the science teacher overseeing the aquaculture laboratory. “Someday we’d like to send students over to the hatchery.”
Students now have a track record of raising rainbow trout, Phillipy said. The group raises whatever Fish and Wildlife needs. In the past, trout from City School have been released locally. Silver Lake has a few City School rainbows. Liberty Lake was selected for this year’s splashdown. Students say they’d like to try their hand at bass. Only fish native to the region are raised at the school.
The Spokane Valley office of the State Fish and Wildlife Department did not respond to interview requests about the City School trout program.
It isn’t easy raising the wild species in captivity, Bowles said. The water temperature and bacterial conditions have to match what the fish will face in the wild. Otherwise, the change from captivity to wild waters could kill the rainbows.
However, the earliest stages of a rainbow’s wild life can’t be replicated.
The eggs start out in a sock-like net positioned about halfway up the tank wall to keep its contents from being flushed away. In the wild, rainbow eggs are deposited by their mothers in gravel depressions called redds. The rainbow mom makes these redds by beating her tail on the fine gravel bottom near the inlets or outlets of lakes. Deposits of eggs are fertilized by male trout, then finely layered with gravel by the female, who repeats the process several times and deposit as many as 4,000 eggs. The survival rate of rainbow eggs in the wild isn’t good.
The eggs in the City School tank nearly all survived, Bowles said. Only about five eggs didn’t make it to what’s called the alevin stage. Alevin rainbows are nearly transparent. On the underside of the alevin is a lung-resembling sack of yolk that contains all the food the fish needs for a few weeks. In the wild, alevin are a snack of choice for bigger fish and even bugs, but at the aquaculture center, the fledgling rainbows have the tanks to themselves.
The fish lose their yolk sacks after a couple weeks and mature to the fry stage, in which they more closely resemble small versions of adult rainbows. It takes almost half a year to get the fish ready for transport to the Outdoor Learning Center. Students who work in the lab must commit to stopping by at least once a week in the summer to care for the trout, which won’t make it over to the Outdoor Learning Center until the fall.
Tank temperature and bacteria are the threats faced by City School rainbows. Aquaculture center general manager Avrey Novak said students had to devise a coffee table-sized filtration system to pull bacteria from the trout tank. The filter is a large Plexiglas column large enough to accommodate most of Novak’s eighth-grade frame. Students filled the column with a tumbleweed-like snarl of plastic freight strapping. Bacteria cling to the strapping naturally. A mild current running through the trout tank constantly delivers new bacteria to the strapping. The bottom of the filter is coated with a heavy beard of black scum.
As much as they can, students like to use recycled material in their construction, Novak said. Even the 600-gallon tank, donated to the school by the Coeur d’Alene Golf Course, is on its second life. To put the size of the tank into perspective, consider that the Washington State Department of Community Development estimates that it takes about 30 gallons of water to fill an average-sized bathtub. That’s 20 bathtubs’ worth of water to fill the aquaculture center trout tank.
There’s more to the aquaculture center than just a trout tank. Students working the last hour of every school day at the aquaculture center tend to a small hydroponics garden fed by the nutrient-rich water of a substantial koi pond. A series of pipes delivers the water from the koi tank to the plants, which feed on the waste generated by the fish, before the dumping the filtered water back into the koi tank.
Bobbing in a tank nearby is a motley crew of turtles, including a sand dollar turtle retrieved from a backyard pond in Hillyard by two City School alumni. The turtle is an endangered species and shouldn’t have been captured, Novak said. In total, there are roughly a dozen tanks of aquatic animals to look after.
The end-of-day work in aquaculture is part of a broader program called CityEscape. At the end of each day, City School students report to jobs around the school that reflect the various vocations of an actual city. There’s a city hall, a café, a newspaper and 17 other components designed to give students a chance to apply their classroom skills in more practical situations.
Students have to submit resumes and cover letters to be considered for aquaculture duty, Novak said. Student managers are part of the selection process.
Aquaculture workers not only care for onsite aquatic animals, said Phillipy, but also meet on the banks of the Spokane River to measure water quality, which has been an eye-opener for students.
“The Spokane River is pretty polluted,” said Richie Landoe, a sixth-grade aquaculture worker. “We’ve found really low levels of dissolved oxygen and there’s tons of conductivity,” suggesting the presence of heavy metals and PCBs.
As anglers, Landoe and others say the trout project has changed the way they think about the fish they catch: It’s hard not to think about the life on the other end of the hook after the raising rainbows from scratch.