Students give back to watershed through trout hatchery program

For more than a decade, Wilton High School students, with the help and guidance of science teacher Jim Lucey, have been raising trout and releasing them into the Norwalk River.

Wilton High School became home to the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s first in-school trout hatchery program in 1999.

“The idea for the program came from a former student of mine, Jeff Yates [former editor of The Bulletin]. We really got started in Jeff’s senior year at Wilton when he wanted to do an independent study,” explained Mr. Lucey, who has taught science for 26 years.

“We came up with the idea of raising fish and contacted the Connecticut DEEP, who was real keen on us either raising salmon or tilapia.”

Mr. Lucey said he and Jeff weren’t interested in either of the two fish.

“To release salmon, we would have to travel up by Gillette’s Castle and release them into the Salmon River, and that seemed to be a disconnect for the students,” said Mr. Lucey.

“They wanted us to raise tilapia because if we accidentally released them into the rivers or the ponds, they would die over the winter because they’re not native to this area.”

After going to Trout Unlimited, Mr. Lucey said, he and Jeff had to convince the organization that they would raise trout “in a very serious fashion,” and Trout Unlimited gave them permission to do so.

“It’s not like anyone can say, ‘I want to raise trout.’ There are restrictions,” said Mr. Lucey.

Mianus Chapter

“When Jeff Yates was interested in raising trout and started the program with Mr. Lucey, it was a separate program at the high school before Trout Unlimited started its Trout in the Classroom program,” explained Mianus Chapter President Tony Hill.

Trout in the Classroom has grown into a nationwide program that Mr. Hill said is “very, very successful.”

In addition to Trout in the Classroom, Mr. Hill said, the Mianus Chapter is involved with cleanup work, bank stabilization and restoration of rivers, and planting of trees and bushes.

“Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect and restore cold water fisheries where the trout live,” said Mr. Hill.

“Mianus Chapter covers Wilton, Stamford, Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and a little bit of Redding and Ridgefield.”

The Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited has more than 600 members, said Mr. Hill, 53 of whom are from Wilton.

The beginning

“In the very beginning, Jeff and I wrote grants, and the PTSA and the Wilton Education Foundation also contributed, and Trout Unlimited contributed, and then we started raising the trout.”

Before receiving “the big grants,” Mr. Lucey said, he and his students used, what they called, “The Franken-Fridge” to raise their trout.

“We drilled holes in the side of a refrigerator and ran 30 feet of tubing through the freezer part. We added a pump so the water would go from the fish tank through the freezer, then back out to the fish tank. That’s how we chilled our water,” explained Mr. Lucey.

Changes

Mr. Lucey said Wilton High School’s trout-raising program has grown a lot since it first started 15 years ago.

Mr. Yates went on to become president of Trout Unlimited’s Mianus Chapter, and in the spring of this year, he was hired to work with Trout Unlimited’s national organization.

The high school’s “Franken-Fridge” has been upgraded to a larger tank, which Mr. Lucey said, is referred to as “The Big Blue.”

There are also two more Wilton High School science teachers involved in the program — Matt Hoyt and Susan Steadham.

“Right now in the program, we’re not just raising the fish,” said Mr. Lucey. “We’re raising and releasing them, but we’re also tagging  them before we release them into the Norwalk River.”

Fishermen contact the high school when one of the trout are caught in the Norwalk River, said Mr. Lucey.

“There is contact information on the tags — however, the tags are quite small,” said Mr. Lucey.

“For this year, we hope to have better signage in the area of our release to alert fishermen.”

Mr. Lucey said he and project members are preparing to embark on a couple new ventures — one of which will involve tracking the fish after releasing them.

“We’re going to start putting radio trackers in the trout and start tracking whether they go upstream or downstream, or how many go up and how any go downstream,” explained Mr. Lucey.

“That’s where the project will probably go next, and Trout Unlimited would be funding a majority of this.”

Mr. Hill said the Mianus Chapter and Wilton High School have discussed tracking the trout sometime next spring, “if everything is in place,” he said.

This year

Once “The Big Blue” is set up, which Mr. Lucey said takes about two weeks, each year’s project can commence.

“It takes a good week or two to get the tank up and going before we contact the DEEP to get the trout,” said Mr. Lucey.

Mr. Hill said schools that participate in the Trout in the Classroom program receive 200 to 500 trout eggs each year.

“We contact Neal Hagstrom from the Connecticut DEEP, and he comes down with as many fish — different sizes of fish,” said Mr. Lucey.

“Then we put them in the tank and they’re in our care until around April or May.”

Mr. Hill said the survival rate of the trout over those several months can vary year-to-year and school-to-school — “anywhere from 50-80% of eggs survive.”

Applying science

Mr. Lucey, who currently teaches chemistry, said the trout-raising program has never been a class requirement  — it’s always been a voluntary program for students.

“When I was teaching AP Environmental Science, it was part of my class, but not a requirement,” he said.

“Any student who wasn’t interested in that would do a couple of the other projects that we had going on at the time.”

Mr. Lucey said students do not receive credit for doing the trout hatchery project unless they want to do an independent study.

“I will have students who will just help feed or help clean the tank or help us release, and they’re not getting credit, he said. “They just want to do something with us — with science.”

Mr. Lucey said the trout hatchery is just one of the many science projects taking place at Wilton High School.

“We have many science projects going on at the high school with many science teachers involved, who are not getting paid extra for this,” said Mr. Lucey.

“We have teachers who are practicing science and inviting students to join them as they practice science.”

Mr. Lucey said the high school and central office administration have been big supporters of not only the trout program, but the many other science projects at the high school.

“Any crazy idea that I’ve come up with over the years, they have usually just given the green light and said, ‘Go for it,’” he said. “I’ve really appreciated that.”

Mr. Lucey said being involved with one of the school’s engaging and hands-on projects where science is applied, rather than just being taught, has made him a better science teacher.

“I know very few people who go into science and say, ‘I just love those three-hour lectures.’ Usually, you go into science saying, ‘I loved that research project I was on’ or ‘I loved the labs,’” said Mr. Lucey.

“This is our kind of backdoor way to let students know that science is a lot more than just talking about it in a classroom setting.”

Mr. Lucey said working with students in the classroom is “magical,” but working with students on projects like the trout hatchery is “beyond imagination.”

“The line between teacher and student is blurred and it becomes a group of people working on a project, as opposed to the teacher instructing the students on what to do,” said Mr. Lucey, adding the student questions and suggestions for the project are “phenomenal.”

Mr. Lucey said he and other Wilton High School science teachers stress the importance of the Norwalk River Watershed to their students.

“What you do with your lawns, your ponds and cutting down trees in Wilton — that all has an impact downstream,” said Mr. Lucey. “The trout project is one way we give back to our watershed.”