St. Mike’s biologist shares fish lessons at rural school
Professor Facey explores hatchery issues with Northeast Kingdom middle schoolers
The students in Jennifer Blay’s middle school science classes at Lowell Graded School in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom watched a documentary about fish hatcheries earlier this school year and became fascinated by the topic.
To encourage their interest, Blay sought the help of Joe Mark, who runs the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s “Trout in the Classroom” program in finding a biologist to answer the many student questions. Mark reached out to biology faculties at Vermont colleges and universities and was pleased when Professor Doug Facey, a veteran biology professor at Saint Michael’s College and fish specialist, agreed to make the 90-minute snowy drive over to Lowell on January 8 prior to resumption of St. Mike’s spring semester classes so he could meet and talk with students there about fish hatcheries and brook-stocking controversies.
Saint Michael’s alumnus Steve Mason ’73, the school board chair for the Lowell School and also chair of the North Country Supervisory Union Board, said when he heard about the visit he was proud and impressed by the commitment and involvement of his alma mater in Vermont’s rural communities demonstrated by Facey’s outreach.
Facey says he was contacted in mid-December by Fish & Wildlife’s Joe Mark, who apparently knew about him though the two are not acquainted, about visiting the Lowell school. Trout in the Classroom provides fertilized brook trout eggs to be raised in the classroom from January to May, and the small fish (about 2 inches) are released into local streams. The teachers who request to participate in the program must find their own funding for the equipment (tank, filter, chiller) and apply to be selected for the program.
Before winter break teachers at the Lowell school had their students watch a documentary called “Artifishal,” which “raised a bunch of questions,” Facey said. “I had heard of the film, but had not seen it – but I watched it before I went so that I would know what they had seen. The documentary is a truthful but rather unsettling look at fish hatcheries, fish stocking, and also salmon farming I was familiar with the issues, but had not seen this particular film. After watching it I can certainly see why students had questions and concerns about whether the fish they were going to be raising should be released…. But we discussed a lot of that during my visit.”
He explained how one concern of stocking any species (in this case Brook Trout) into rivers that already have that same species of fish is the potential for interbreeding between the stocked fish and the native fish of the same species. The native fish are well adapted genetically to the local conditions, but the hatchery-raised fish aren’t, so if the stocked fish interbreed with the native fish, it could genetically weaken the population, which would be ecologically harmful.
Facey helped students better understand about genetically different, though not genetically-modified “triploid fish” from hatcheries that have an extra set of chromosomes that for various reasons that the biologist and students examined, prevent interbreeding. These triploids are released primarily to enhance fishing, but they can compete with native fishes in the stream or become predators or prey, which can be a down side, even without the negative possibility of interbreeding. This was the center of the class debate, on whether or not they should release their fish, he said.
“This was the first time I’ve done a visit for the Trout in Classroom program,” said Facey, who enjoyed the experience, adding that many years ago he did a similar visit in Burlington when one of his son’s classes was raising young salmon to release.
School board chairman Mason ’73 said Facey “talked with the 7th graders for about an hour, and then 5th, 6th, and 8th graders joined for about an hour. Great questions were raised, and Professor Facey was happy to answer all of them. In fact it went so well that Professor Facey might even try to make it back in May for “release day” for the fish.”
Professor Facey told the Lowell science teacher Ms. Blay that he would be willing to spend some time on his return in the spring to hear more from the students about what they learned from the experience and how they feel about the issue of stocking.