Students get feet wet in annual river ritual

May 25, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

They came, they saw, they shocked some fish.

About 75 seventh-graders from Clarksville Middle School waded through the waters of the Middle Patuxent River yesterday in jeans and sneakers, catching and identifying fish and insects, measuring flow rates and recording the properties of water and riverbank soil.

Getting their feet wet is an annual ritual for students in the school's River Studies Curriculum. By looking at life in the water, the students learn how pollution and storm water runoff can affect river and stream ecosystems.

Yesterday, two fish experts from the state Department of Natural Resources used an electrified net to stun some of the river's larger fish, displaying the variety of species in that part of the river, just north of Route 108.

"I saw a fish over here!" shouted one boy, who leaned over the riverbank as Doug Marshall, a fisheries biologist, and Michele Katz, an environmental specialist, trolled the river with nets.

"Yeah, come shock it!" shouted a companion.

Mr. Marshall wore a battery pack on his back connected by a wire to a long pole with a small net strung across a metal hoop. As he dipped the electrified net into the stream, shocking and temporarily stunning the fish, Ms. Katz scooped them up with another net.

"It enabled us to illustrate the variety of species here," said Mr. Marshall.

Later, as some students expressed dismay at the appearance of the stunned fish floating upside down, others tried to reassure them that the shock doesn't harm the fish.

Mr. Marshall and his partner filled a tank with stunned fish and set it on the rocky shore in front of the students, then explained what he had found.

He held up a rose-sided dace, a palm-sized fish with a red stripe, and explained that because the fish is an insect eater, its presence is a good indicator that the river is in good shape.

Problems such as excess silt deprive insects of their rocky-bottom habitat, he told the students, and if insects can't live there, neither can insectivores, such as the dace.

The Middle Patuxent is "a pretty healthy body of water right now," said Mr. Marshall, who evaluates the quality of streams.

The students also were treated to the sight of a sunfish with a bright yellow stripe, a smallmouth bass, an algae-eating white sucker and a river chop.

"That's an American eel," said Mr. Marshall as he held up a 16-inch snake-like, dark gray fish. He told the students that the eel likely was born in the Sargasso Sea and had made its way up the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River to Howard County.

Seventh-grade science teacher Natalie Meyers said that the seventh-graders have adopted the stream for the environmental group, Save Our Streams.

Some students are trained to test the stream, and those students got to share their knowledge with other seventh-graders yesterday, as they waded from station to station in the stream.

"We're testing the nitrates and the phosphates and pH in the soil," explained Patti Shelton, 13, of Kings Contrivance village.

By measuring those levels, she said, "we can see what kind of animals and plants that are able to live in the water."

Corinna Heinz, 12, of River Hill village, displayed some of the river's inhabitants in a plastic bucket filled with river water.

"That's Herman, the crayfish; Norman, the stonefly; and Erin and Eddie are water beetles," she said.

"It's fun," she said of the outing. "We make another river studies trip on Thursday, and we report to Save Our Streams about the health of the river."

Downstream, in the shadow of the Route 108 bridge, Sara Gibbs, 12, of River Hill, pondered the importance of what she was doing. "I had no clue about phosphates and nitrates or that they were even in a river," she said. "They're too high in this river."

Asked what that meant for the river, Sara leafed through her mimeographed workbook for the answer.

"It means that it will grow too much algae, and that wastes oxygen," she said.

Questioned about the source of the phosphates and nitrates, Sara was interrupted by a classmate, Michele Riehl, 13, of Highland.

"Don't they come from fertilizer?" said Michele, who later added, "it's from farm runoff."

Mr. Marshall said the outing helps the students better appreciate the ecological principles they study in the classroom.

"I think it's gaining an understanding that there is a connection between the insects and the plants and when you take one of them away there's a consequence," Mr. Marshall said.

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