“I ran here,” one student says. She is winded and barely able to contain her excitement, and she is not the only one. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s truck had arrived just minutes earlier, setting off a chain reaction of texts and alerts. Aaron Frater-Schmidt and Samantha Askin from the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery backed the truck into a service driveway at the West Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada, while approximately a dozen of the high school’s students gathered there. Students were not just there to watch the arrival of 300 endangered bonytails; the hands-on learning had officially begun.
Long before that truck full of fish would arrive though, a different chain of communications had been initiated; one that stretched across three of the Service’s administrative regions and two of the Service’s programs. How did a high school in Las Vegas become the temporary stewards of an endangered fish species?
Reid Marlowe, one of the teachers in the Academy’s Environmental Science program, thought of bringing fish to the Academy years ago. With his administration’s approval and willingness to provide funding, he started looking into the idea. His goal was to get his students experience with an endemic species, "especially one that’s endangered,” he says, because of the range of environmental management topics that would encompass.
Marlowe cannot recall how he first learned about the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, which is situated on the east bank of the Colorado River in Arizona, but he does remember when he walked into the hatchery office in 2019 and pitched his idea. As he recalls, he asked if it would be possible or if it was a fool’s errand. Hatchery staff were supportive of the idea and encouraged him to keep pursuing it. In the meantime, Marlowe gained experience with sterile rainbow trout through the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s “Trout in the Classroom” program.
Fast-forward to 2022. By that time, Aaron Frater-Schmidt had settled into the hatchery’s team as assistant manager, and the restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic had eased. The hatchery was positioned to move the idea forward, but how could the school gain authorization? A serendipitous encounter with employees from the Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office put Frater-Schmidt in touch with that office’s senior fish biologist and lead for Colorado River fishes, Michael Schwemm, who would sort out the regulatory fin of Marlowe’s proverbial fish. Legal possession of endangered species requires specific documentation, and he worked with three regions across the Service to obtain the authorization the school and hatchery needed.
Frater-Schmidt and Schwemm both agreed that the bonytail could be the endemic and endangered fish Marlowe had been hoping for. A member of the minnow family that was listed in 1980, the bonytail is a native to the Colorado River basin and is well adapted to swift river environments. Historically, it was common in warm-water sections of large rivers and tributaries from Mexico to Wyoming, but due to threats that include streamflow regulation, habitat modification, and competition with and predation by non-native species, it now only occurs in a small fraction of its historic range. In fact, it is the rarest of the river’s four endangered “big river fishes” and is considered nearly extinct in the Lower Colorado River if not for stocking programs. Despite its rarity and riverine habitat, the species is well-suited for hatchery management locally because ambient conditions are generally favorable and easier to maintain than they would be for a cold-water species, such as trout. Additionally, Marlowe’s idea was compatible with the hatchery’s management and conservation goals related to the species.
“As part of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Program, the Bureau of Reclamation funds state and federal hatchery systems to grow out these fish and reintroduce them back into the wild,” says Schwemm. To support that goal, the hatchery receives ample larvae from captive-reared brood stock and has achieved a high survival rate from larvae. While hatchery goals are still met, educational display is a suitable use for some of the many surviving juveniles, and it falls within the scope of the permit issued to the regional director, under which the hatchery operates.
When delivery day finally arrived, it was the students who swiftly ferried fish-filled nets from the truck to the Academy’s tanks. Camera lenses were splashed, water spots were left on smartphone screens, and shoes got wet. Marlowe hopes the impressions that are left go beyond the splash of the first day. He hopes that for some students, this could be the thing that sparks a deeper curiosity and engagement, not just within the school environment, but within the wider world. He thinks this program will help students see the big picture, the “reasons behind learning,” as he puts it. He envisions new futures opening for students, all because of exposure to people and opportunities that opened their eyes and got them excited.
This motivation is echoed by Frater-Schmidt, who thinks this partnership could open doors to future careers and spark students’ interest because of how special the opportunity is. “They are so rare,” he says of bonytail, “and no one will see these in the wild.”
Marlowe says up to approximately 175 students in the Academy’s environmental science program have some exposure to the fish, but a smaller group of four students have tackled the task of management with impressive dedication. “They purge 40 gallons a day and refill with dechlorinated water. They do daily water quality tests and record that information. They scrub algae, look for signs of disease, follow feeding charts and load feeders,” he says. The list goes on.
The school will continue working closely with the hatchery to stay on track through the school year and coordinate returning the fish for the summer recess. The authorization allows the program to continue into future school years. From Marlowe’s point of view, the sky is the limit for learning opportunities across the Academy. He foresees opportunities for senior projects in programs like biotech, biomed, digital media, and engineering, to name a few. For now, he’s ecstatic with how far they have come, and two weeks into the program, the students were still excited. They were making bonytail t-shirts and stickers and selling them in the cafeteria along with the school’s home-grown produce. “Kids even eat lunch out here,” Marlowe says, referring to the greenhouse where the tanks are located. When they look in the tanks, maybe they see more than 300 bonytails; maybe they see the future.