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The school of fish: Haywood students raise fish to re-introduce into a cleaner Pigeon River

Students in Haywood County are on the front lines of an ambitious effort to reintroduce a slew of native species to the Pigeon River following decades of pollution from the Canton paper mill that destroyed the aquatic habitat.


Students in Carla Billups fifth-grade classroom at Jonathan Valley Elementary School have been monitoring a fish tank of striped shiners in their classroom since November.

“I think there’s a mix of boys and girls so they can breed together and make more fish,” explained Austin Gayne, a fifth-grader who is helping tend the fish.

“We are going to turn them loose in the river,” said Sydney Worrell, another fifth-grader. “Someday if we hear the population keeps growing, we will know ‘Hey we were a part of that.’”

Meanwhile, eighth-grade students at Canton Middle school are captivated with a tank of striped shiners of their own.

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“We are going to reintroduce the shiners back to their natural habitat,” said eighth-grader Jerod Stinnett. “Hopefully one day there will be a truckload of them.”

The fish have become mascots of sorts to the classrooms that take care of them.

“I feel like I’m learning more about their culture and habitat having them in the classroom,” said Caleb Leatherwood, an eighth-grader at Canton Middle.

The Canton Students have nickmanes for fish, ranging from Biscuit to Frankenstein.

“They spend a lot of time looking at the fish and worrying about the fish,” said Harold Shepard, the students’ eighth-grade teacher at Canton Middle. “The kids have gotten really excited because these fish are something that is missing from the river and they are excited about being part of that. They feel like they are actually getting to help do something instead of reading about someone else doing something.”

Lacking the environmental triggers that would typically signal the fish to spawn, the teachers and students will mimic spring by leaving on a light over the tank a little longer each day, spurring the fish to lay their eggs.

“If that happens the kids are going to go ballistic,” said Shepard.

Back at Jonathan Valley, the fifth-grade students nicknamed the largest shiner in the tank Godzilla. They keep a class journal of observations on the fish. When asked what happened to the shiners that used to live in the Pigeon River, the students blamed pollution, citing sediment, trash tangles, oil run-off and people spilling things like Coke in the creek.

“Because of pollution in the water. A lot of times when you go to the creek you see trash in it,” said fifth-grader Maddy Pipitone.

Billups said the experiment is giving the students a direct connection in caring for the ecosystem.

“If the water’s not healthy, the fish aren’t healthy,” Billups said. “I try to teach them they can make a difference.”

The message seems to be taking. Sydney said she tries to imagine how she would feel if she was in the fish’s place.

“If I had to swim around in nasty stuff all the time I wouldn’t like it,” Sydney said.

Tracking water quality is nothing new for Billups’ elementary students. They regularly take water quality samples from Jonathan Creek and measure the temperature, oxygen levels, amount of sediment in the water and pH.

“I like taking the temperature because I get to put my hands in the water,” Maddy said.

At Canton Middle School, students got similar field experience through the countywide Kids in the Creek field day led by Haywood Waterways Association. Now the students are doing those same tests to monitor the water in their fish tanks.

“We check their tanks about every two weeks,” said Jerod. To demonstrate, he and Caleb pulled out a litany of testing equipments and began dunking test tubes into the tank, pulling mineral tablets from bottles and examining pH test strips.

The fish tanks were filled with water from the Pigeon River so the fish would get used to the water they will one day call home. Native sand and pebbles were even scooped up from the river to put down in the bottom of the fish tanks.

The students are optimistic the fish will cope well when they are set free to re-populate the river.

“It might take a little while to catch their own food, but after a few days they will say ‘Oh I’m not getting fed anymore,’” Sydney said.

“I think they will do pretty good,” Austin said. “We don’t want the fish to go extinct.”

In addition to Jonathan Valley Elementary and Canton Middle, tanks are also in two other classrooms at Tuscola High and Bethel Christian Academy.

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