SOUTH PORTLAND — Around 2 p.m. Wednesday, Julie Pitt’s sixth-grade class from Mahoney Middle School was saying goodbye.
Not to each other, but to a school of tiny brook trout they released into aptly named Trout Brook near Providence Avenue.
One by one, the children made their way to a relatively calm run to dump their barely visible fish into the water, crossing their fingers with hope the little guys survive.
It was the culmination of a five-month educational program called Trout Kids, run by the Portland Water District.
Each January, PWD gives trout eggs to elementary and middle school students throughout the Sebago Lake watershed. In South Portland, all the elementary schools, plus Mahoney, participated.
The students grew the eggs in hulking, noisy tanks until early May, when the survivors were ready to be set free. Along the way, educators from PWD and South Portland Water Resource Protection joined school faculty to teach students about the water cycle, aquatic biology, environmental stewardship and, of course, trout life cycles – from egg, to elvin, to fry.
“When the students are putting their trout into the river, there’s this moment sometimes where they wonder whether the water is OK for the trout, and it becomes meaningful to them,” said Lynn Richard, an educator with PWD. “That’s good. That’s what we want, for the kids to understand that clean water is important.
Trout Brook is listed as an “impaired” watershed by the Department of Environmental Protection, partly because of the lack of insect and other inverterbrate life that signals a healthy waterstream. Those bugs, as well as the brook trout, are sort of the canaries-in-the-coal mine of freshwater quality.
But recently, a school of brook trout were found that made Richard wonder if the brook was ready for active trout rehabilitation.
So she called the state’s biologist, who gave Richard the go-ahead.
Wednesday, students from Pitt’s class were working with PWD educator Katrina Venhuizen to identify those same macro invertebrates, the ones that signify healthy, or at least improving, water quality. Venhuizen had gathered some bugs and put them in dishes for students to identify.
“That one, the black ugly one, is this,” said sixth-grader Abby Cavallaro, pointing at a picture of a midge worm on a creature identification sheet.
Another student, Allie Sorescu, asked Venhuizen whether it was possible for one of the bugs to eat another. But she already knew the answer; she’d just seen it happen.
“Cool!” Venhuizen said, matching the child’s enthusiasm. “I love science.”
The students participated in other activities at the brook, too: testing the water’s acidity (pH of 7.0, perfectly neutral), salinity, temperature and oxygen content. They walked the banks of Trout Brook with Fred Dillon, a worker with Water Resource Protection, who taught them about the importance of keeping storm water from dumping contaminants into the river.
Then it was time to free the fish.
Most of the students who released fish this week were sending out trout they’d grown in their own classrooms, but Pitt’s class had surrogates supplied by PWD. Most of their fish had died in the classroom because water temperatures in the $800 tank-and-cooler systems couldn’t be kept at the life-supporting chill needed for early trout development.
Venhuizen said that wasn’t the students’ fault, though. It’s just the nature of things.
“They’re an extremely sensitive species,” she said. “They just refuse to live if the waters aren’t perfect.”
Several dozen fry were released into the brook on Wednesday. In total, hundreds were released by South Portland students over four days.
If all goes well, the population will grow, said Dillon, the Water Resource Management employee. Before property near Trout Brook was developed, he said, the trout were plentiful.
And now the city is developing a plan to clean up the watershed. That could mean using less salt during the winter along stretches of road that drain into the brook, or urging homeowners not to use chemicals that could leach into the watershed and hurt animals’ and plants’ chances of survival.
“There are different ways to do things,” he said. “We’re working on it.”
Mahoney Middle School sixth-grader Spencer Houlette inspects a trout fry before releasing it into Trout Brook in South Portland on Wednesday. The release was the culmination of a five-month project between city schools, the Portland Water District, and South Portland Water Resource Protection to teach kids about the importance of clean water.
Mahoney Middle School sixth-graders Lionel Whitehead, right, Lilliana Brandao, and Caitlin Greene try to identify a water insect held by Portland Water District educator Katrina Venhuizen at Trout Brook in South Portland on Wednesday. The field trip, which included releasing trout fry into the brook, was the culmination of a five-month project between city schools, the Portland Water District, and South Portland Water Resource Protection to teach kids about the importance of clean water.
Mahoney Middle School sixth-grader Andrew Nichols releases a trout fry into Trout Brook in South Portland on Wednesday as Tyler Liston waits for his turn to do the same. The release was the culmination of a five-month project between city schools, the Portland Water District, and South Portland Water Resource Protection to teach kids about the importance of clean water.