A new forestry and wildlife class has 22 high school students in the Colville Valley wading through studies of the Four R’s: reading, writing, ’rithmetic and rainbow trout.
The class debuted in the fall after Stevens County acquired the aging Colville Fish Hatchery last year in a deal with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The 19 acres surrounding the springs at the source of Colville Creek are leased from the state for use as a natural laboratory for the classes, said NEWTECH Skills instructor Jono Esvelt.
“But the hatchery buildings were purchased for $150,000, which will be paid back to the state in the fish we produce,” Esvelt said. “The students know this isn’t just a class; it’s a real business.”
Esvelt, in his 20th year of teaching forestry and wildlife in the Kettle Falls School District, said the chance to put students in charge of a fish hatchery for school or vo-tech credit is “the biggest deal of my career.”
The program operates for the Colville and Kettle Falls school districts under the umbrella of NEWTECH Skills, an arm of Spokane District 81.
“I’ve been bringing students to the hatchery for years for field trips because there’s so much to learn and the state hatchery staff was so accommodating,” Esvelt said.
“But one day last fall I was a teacher and the next day I was also the hatchery manager. There’s a steep learning curve.”
State fisheries biologists and hatchery staff have been generous with help and advice. On Wednesday, Mitch Combs, manager of the Sherman Creek Fish Hatchery, stopped by to promise students lessons in measuring oxygen levels in the water.
“That’s the sort of science these students learn,” Esvelt said, noting that the amount of oxygen in the water is governed by several things including the amount of fish in the water. “Get too many fish in a trough and they can’t breathe.”
The program gets support from a volunteer board of 10 members, including a retired hatchery manager. A dozen area business and contractors have donated more than $20,000 in services or materials.
“I’ve had contractors, a plumber and other people volunteer services,” Esvelt said, noting that the bus driver chips in to do all sorts of necessary jobs.
Last summer, several students got school credit for working for a month to convert the hatchery’s double garage into a classroom.
They also had to add a second restroom and make everything handicapped accessible.
In this first year, the hatchery is operating on $49,000 in grants plus personal donations from supporters, clubs and businesses totaling $5,000, Esvelt said.
“The goal is to have the project pay for itself in fish production.
“We got our first eggs to hatch in September. Already the students can run this place. And we have a substitute teacher who ran a hatchery on the coast for seven years. It’s amazing the help you can find when you need it.”
This science class was clearly different from the outset. Soon after the bus dropped them off at the Colville Fish Hatchery for a 2 1/2-hour session, they were donning rubber boots and washing their hands.
First, they broke into teams and went to their assigned troughs to tend their share of the trout crop.
The session begins much as a day at a dog boarding kennel.
“There’s a lot of manure management that goes along with fish science and genetics,” Esvelt said.
The students must change the mesh-size of the screens at the end of each trough every few weeks. As the fry increase in size, so do their droppings.
The holes in the screen have to be big enough to let the poop go through but small enough to prevent fish passage, said senior Brandon Hopkins as he used a brush to clean a trough.
Tracy Lehr, a junior, pointed out that even at 2 months old, some of the fry hatched in January were roughly twice the size of others in the same tank.
“Some are definitely more aggressive for the food,” he said. “So we feed a lot of food all at once (a few times a day) so the big fish get full and there’s still some left for the littler ones.
“If we fed a little at a time more often, the little ones would never have much of a chance.”
Every other week a given number of the fish from each trough are weighed to calculate the rate of feed by a formula.
“The students use math in every stage of the process,” Esvelt said. “Each tank has its own population. The formulas guide them into the most efficient way to convert food into meat.
“Right now we’re feeding this tank 2.7 percent of the fishes’ body weight.”
Lizzie Phipps, a junior, said she grew up in the Colville neighborhood next to the hatchery.
“We used to come here as kids to look at the fish,” she said. “Coming into this class, you think you know what a fish hatchery is about, but you find out it’s much more involved.”
The rate of water through the tanks must be adjusted once a week for the rapidly growing trout.
“I calculate the flow in the big tank with a 5-gallon bucket,” Phipps said.
Wearing hip-high rubber boots, she waded into the tank and held the bucket to the water inflow pipe while another student timed the fill.
“Gallons per minute: It’s a simple calculation that’s very important to raising the fish,” Esvelt said.
Each day, students count the fish mortalities in their troughs and collect the carcasses, which they call “morts.”
“They log all of the morts and subtract them to keep a running total of the number of fish in each trough,” Esvelt said.
They started with 26,000 eggs from the Trout Lodge Hatchery north of Moses Lake and, three months later, 125,000 from the Spokane Hatchery. The egg numbers are based on weight.
“They’ve subtracted every dead egg that had to be removed and every dead fish for a population total that helps them in calculations for food and water flow.
“At this point our mortality rate is 12 percent. Professional hatchery managers say they expect 10-25 percent mortality, so we’re right in the ballpark.”
After they do their work, the student teams cross-check each other. “They make sure they’ve gone through all their duties,” Esvelt said. “Leave out a plug just once and you can lose all the fish in a trough.”
Each session concludes with a brief hatchery meeting and more reading, writing or other work back in the classroom.
Sometimes they do projects on the wildlands around the hatchery.
“They’ll learn about the habitat and natural food a fish will need after it leaves the hatchery,” Esvelt said. “We have trail cams out. We’ll do weed control. We’ll look at insects.”
Deer are on the property so the students were not totally surprised to find a cougar track.
As a payback to the community, the class plans to ready a natural brood pond next to the hatchery for stocking so they can host kid-fishing events.
Esvelt has projected the students will successfully raise 122,000 of the Spokane Hatchery fish for sale at about 3 cents apiece. The 22,000 Trout Lodge fish, which were hatched sooner, will be larger at spring stocking time.
“They’ll be worth more,” Esvelt said. “That’s why our expansion plan is to have outside ponds so we can raise fish to even bigger sizes and grow our income,” he said.
The school district pays Esvelt’s salary but the fish will have to pay for electricity, food and other bills.
“Right now we’re limited by space, which could be expanded. But our ultimate limiting factor for how many fish we can produce is water,” he said. “We get 380 gallons a minute from our source. We have to make the most of it.”
Esvelt plants to double the number of students next year by adding an afternoon class and opening the course to students from the Inchelium and Chewelah areas.
“We already have four of 10 seniors who have an interest in pursuing fisheries science at the college level,” he said.
Bill Baker, Fish and Wildlife Department district fish biologist, has not yet made this season’s stocking plan for the 55 northeastern Washington that are planted with trout in some form each spring.
“Since the state sold the Colville Hatchery, the Spokane and Ford hatcheries have tried to absorb the production we need for stocking lakes in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties,” he said.
The student production won’t replace what a full-time hatchery staff can produce, he indicated.
“The main value of the Colville Hatchery now is the educational component and the value to the community,” Baker said. “Where they’re able to produce fish that are usable is icing on the cake. It’s a bonus. There’s real potential there.”