Program designed to teach students about importance of restoring and protecting water quality
By SONYA GURWITT/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — A young girl crouches at the edge of the Woonasquatucket River, a small plastic bucket clutched in her hands. Gently, she upends the bucket. The fish that flops out creates a small splash, the water rippling in the sunlight. The girl watches it swim away.
Around her, similar scenes unfold as fourth-grade students from the Paul Cuffee School crowd around the riverbank, dumping small fish from plastic cups, shouting their farewells, and watching as they swim away down the river.
“We’ll miss you!” “Bye Joey, bye Mary!” “There it is! I see him!”
This moment had been months in the making. The students had been raising trout in their classroom since March, as part of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council’s “Fish in the Classroom” program. On a recent Monday morning, their second-to-last day of school, the students are at Riverside Park to release the trout they’ve raised.
The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC) was created soon after the river was designated as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998, with a mission of restoring and preserving the river’s watershed and its historic, cultural, economic and environmental significance.
“Fish in the Classroom” is one of several WRWC educational programs. By raising the fish, the students learned about river ecosystems and the importance of protecting and restoring water quality.
Their teacher, Kelly Barr, said the students observed their aquatic visitors and cared for the fish by feeding them and checking the tank’s water temperature. WRWC education director Kassi Archambault came to give lessons on other topics, such as watersheds, pollution, and on the habitat, life cycle and survival needs of trout.
Barr said the kids loved the experience.
“My favorite part,” one student, Paula, said, “was when we did the water-quality test about what kind of water they’re in and how it gets polluted sometimes.”
She explained how the class tested the pH levels of the water to make sure it was safe for the fish.
It’s especially important to the mission of the Paul Cuffee School that its students do this kind of work. The school, not far down the river from the park, is a public charter school created to educate students through a maritime-themed curriculum. The school’s namesake, the son of a freed African slave and Wampanoag Indian, was a successful sea captain and one of the first black men to visit the White House.
Before their visitors’ recent release in Riverside Park, the fourth-graders sat around a circle of stone slabs and read farewell letters they wrote to the trout.
“Dear Fish. I hope you survive well in the outdoors. It’s hard out there. I hope you survive and eat lots of food.”
“Dear Fishy-fish. You guys rock. I hope you had a wonderful time in our classroom…we had a great time with you.”
“Goodbye fish. It was good to have you in the tank. When you go out in the river, don’t eat each other.”
After the students read their goodbyes, Kimberly Sullivan, aquatic resource education coordinator with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, thanked the students for raising the trout.
“And,” Sullivan said, “I want you to continue thinking about fish and water, where your water comes from, and continue taking care of this great resource that you guys have. You guys are really on your way to being great stewards and conservationists.”
Since the class raised only a few trout themselves, Sullivan brought extras. The students each had one to release.
The fourth-graders rush to the water’s edge, where Sullivan opens the cooler she’s been carrying with her. It’s filled with trout. She hands them one by one in cups to the students, who release each fish into the river.
Once all the trout are in the water, it’s time to make sure the river will provide a good habitat for them. This means collecting macroinvertebrate samples from the river bottom.
“Why don’t I want the water on me?” Archambault asked, as she pulled on waders in preparation to walk into the river.
“Because it’s polluted!” a student yelled.
“Yes, it’s definitely not swimmable,” Sullivan said. “But someday who knows. Maybe it will be with all the efforts that you guys are doing.”
Archambault wades into the water just below a small dam, and begins to dig around in the river bottom with her net. The macroinvertebrates present in the river sediment, she said, indicate the quality of the water.
She brings her net back to the bank of the river, and the students and Sullivan crowd around, sifting through the small rocks and leaves caught in it.
“All right,” Sullivan said. “So we got a lot of caddisflies. ... These guys are pretty important, because they do need a little bit better water quality. And they do need more oxygen. And they are a useful source for our trout. So this is actually not a bad spot to put our trout.”