MEEKER | The moment “fish shocking” is mentioned, ears perk up, and you have the full attention of young and impressionable 12-year-olds. The Highland Ditch fish salvage has been taking place since 2010 or 2011. “The goal is to reduce the impact to the mountain whitefish population from entrainment with the ditch,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Aquatic Biologist Tory Eyre. CPW utilizes Meeker youth to help relocate fish from the Highland Ditch back to the White River and at the same time provide invaluable outdoor education to inspire. Bailey Franklin, District Wildlife Manager, helps organize the annual event. This year eight kids helped remove approximately 550 fish on Nov. 1, of which about 400 were mountain whitefish. Barone Middle School seventh graders Kassidy Wille, Ellie Hossack, Jayde Turner, Teagan Sheridan, Judd Harvey, Jake Blazon, Bella Blazon and Jayda May had the opportunity to spend a day in the life of an aquatic biologist.
How does fish shocking work? CPW utilizes electrofishing backpacks, which emit a low voltage pulse into the water and temporarily stun nearby fish. Then the group of kids net the fish and transfer them to a holding tank. Once the area has been cleared, the fish are identified and catalogued by species type and length. The kids learn to identify the different species salvaged which include the mountain whitefish, mottled sculpin, brown trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, cutbows (rainbow trout and cutthroat trout hybrids) and mountain suckers, all species that are benefited with the salvage.
CPW technicians went in-depth explaining to the group how mountain whitefish and trout fall into the family Salmonidae, how this family can typically be identified because of the presence of the adipose fin, and other distinguishing marks and spots. They talked about the different seasons of spawning, and how brook trout and brown trout spawn in the fall, where rainbow trout and cutthroat trout spawn in the spring, and this is why you can find cutbow trout in our river. The kids soaked it all in.
“What a great experience for them,” said Tara Wille, mother to Kassidy.
The group learned that mountain whitefish are found throughout the Upper Colorado River System and are native to the White River and Yampa River drainages. Mountain whitefish are best to sample by electrofishing when water temperatures are cold, reducing added stress for the fish. This makes November, with low flows in the ditch, an optimal time for salvage operations.
“There is a secondary benefit of allowing us to collect biological information for the different fish species,” Eyre said. “We get to handle a lot of fish and see how each species and each age class is doing or if any are underrepresented.”
The kids also learned to identify what a spawning fish looked like as it was the backend of the mountain whitefish spawning season. It was a hands-on day filled with science.
When the data is digested it will be delivered to the school so the group can utilize “their” data for other projects, including working with the numbers in math. It is a great way for the kids to see from beginning to end what it takes to be a scientist, that the field work is not the end, and hopefully some are inspired to continue the work.
By Tiffany Jehorek | Special to the Herald Times