High school students learn the ropes in innovative aquaculture program

David Scarratt
April 29, 2018
By David Scarratt
Students have recently added steel and plastic walls to improve hatchery security.
Students have recently added steel and plastic walls to improve hatchery security.
The instructor’s vision at Onalaska High School is to provide students with a unique opportunity to learn advanced practices in aquaculture, develop a solid work ethic, and ensure future employability.


Early last fall, Kevin Hoffman, Instructor in Aquaculture at Onalaska High School in Onalaska, Washington, contacted Hatchery International to bring their aquaculture program to our attention. Onalaska has had a hatchery program for nearly 20 years, and is now making some important changes to it.

This is not just an academic program: it is based on a small fish hatchery owned and operated on school grounds by the Onalaska High School.Kevin, with an extensive eight-year background in commercial aquaculture, has been in charge of the program for two years. Students operate the hatchery under his direction with technical support from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and participate in all aspects of its daily routines, maintenance, and re-modelling. There is a cooperative agreement with the WDFW, which supplies the fish and feed, and additional operational support comes from the Chehalis Tribe and Cooke Aquaculture Pacific.  

Outdoor enthusiasts

The program is designed for students who enjoy being outdoors, who like to have their education linked to real-world projects, and who may be interested in future natural resource work or study. Students work collaboratively with their peers and aquaculture professionals throughout the course, gaining hands-on experience while learning about aquaculture and the resources involved. The hatchery program provides a paid position for one student throughout the summer for basic fish husbandry.

The hatchery and its instructional program are probably among the most advanced in the United States at the high school level, and according to Kevin, the educational experience that the students receive can be favourably compared to that provided by the two technical colleges in Washington State that offer aquaculture education programs. Nonetheless, the hatchery and the associated instructional program are under stress, and need some enhanced publicity to ensure their continued success.

Clean spring water

Water for the hatchery is sourced from a nearby spring and requires no treatment; the temperature is consistently around 50°F (10°C), and holds 8mg/l oxygen.The hatchery contains incubators and four tanks for fry and smolt. Students have recently modified the building to include rigid rather than wire mesh walls, thus enhancing security.

To achieve the planned changes, the students of the 2016-2017 school year upgraded the existing plumbing, created a better culturing environment for their steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss), increased flow rates by adding pumps, incorporated counter-current degassers to increase oxygen concentrations, and installed a clarifier and biological filter to complete the RAS.

Security is further enhanced in that a power failure will automatically open the emergency oxygenation system. The fully recirculating system, when complete will reuse 95%-98% of the water. This refit is ongoing and is scheduled for completion later in the school year. The goal is to provide students with practical experience of the most up-to-date technology and hatchery practices.

RAS for trout

In the full recirculating system, students raise rainbow trout for a youth-oriented fishing event they host during the annual Onalaska Apple Harvest Festival. They supply 100 two- to three-pound trout for the community’s angling enjoyment.

In the partial recirculating system, 35,000 steelheadwere raised, for release into the Newaukum River. Students perform fish husbandry, fin-clipping operations to subsequently identify hatchery-raised fish, and then transport them to river.  

Besides maintaining and operating the hatchery, the program includes seasonal operations at Gheer Creek, located half a mile away,where every fall returning adult coho (O. kisutch) are trapped, counted and processed. The surplus adult coho carcasses, if in good condition, are given to the community through the local food bank. (Fish not acceptable for human consumption are returned to the stream for nutrient enhancement.)  

At Carlisle Lake (barely half a mile out of town) there are three net-pens, which are used for a few months each year to raise 50,000 each of early and late coho fry. These are subsequently released into Gheer Creek to help support local sport fisheries. Students also raise 9,000 rainbow troutfor sport fishermen, which are released in the spring. On season-opening weekend, the lake is usually crowded with sport fishermen targeting hatchery-raised rainbows planted by both WDFW and the school program. Students check the net pens daily to feed the fish and monitor their activity.

Planning hasn’t stopped

The long-range plan is to incorporatea large scale aquaponics system into the hatchery program. Growing fish produce nutrient-rich water, (before it is neutralized by the biological filter), and carbon dioxide as a by-product of fish respiration. These valuable resources will be used by diverting the water into a large greenhouse to grow vegetables for either the school lunch program or for the community. Raising catfish (Ictalurus sp.) for local consumption is also in the plan. The hope is to provide healthy, not-for-profit food, to increase community health and wellness.

Kevin’s vision is to provide students of Onalaska High School with a unique opportunity to learn the most advanced practices in aquaculture, to develop their work ethic and to ensure their future employability.

For more information contact Kevin at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


SIDEBAR

Comprehensive & Forward-Looking

Students at Onalaska High School develop a clear understanding of industry safety standards, and of hatchery operations. They learn about fish husbandry and hatchery maintenance, participate in day-to-day monitoring, feeding, cleaning tanks, repair and construction. They are able to identify northwest Pacific fish species, and learn about their biology, anatomy and reproduction.

They also learn about different career opportunities that may be available following graduation. They learn that work stops only when everything that the fish need has been done, not simply when the “end of school” bell sounds. And they are also learning some of the more technical sides of building and operating a hatchery, and under Kevin’s direction are re-configuring the system from simple flow-through to partial re-use and finally full recirculation.

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