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Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program - Soundings 2012-06-01

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Shad make their way into the classroom, students’ hearts

By Jim Hawhee, APNEP staff
June 1, 2012

Students make shad fins

Students make shad fins.  Photo credit: Kelly Riley

“My kids want to share with you....SHAD ROCK!!!!”

Thus begins an email to the APNEP office, forwarded from Kelly Riley, a teacher at The Oakwood School in Greenville. The Oakwood School is one of 20 schools that participated in Shad in the Classroom this year, an initiative led by the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences with financial support from APNEP and other partners.

Shad in the Classroom allows students and teachers to participate in an authentic recovery effort for the American shad (Alosa sapidissima). At the Edenton National Fish Hatchery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises and releases millions of American shad fry each year into the rivers of the Albemarle-Pamlico region. A small percentage of these fish take a week-long detour through area classrooms as part of the Shad in the Classroom program.

Setting up the shad tank

Setting up the shad tank.  Photo credit: Kelly Riley

Why shad? From an ecological perspective, this anadromous fish has an integral niche in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system. Shad travel deep into the region’s river basins to spawn, and juvenile shad spend their first few years maturing in North Carolina’s sounds. Shad are an important prey species for many fish, birds, reptiles and mammals, and they are also important indicators of habitat connectivity between ocean, estuarine and river systems.

The fish also has cultural importance in the region. The historic shad fishery once supported annual harvests of 8 million pounds per year and 7,000 jobs in North Carolina. While the stock has collapsed to only a small percentage of historical levels, many cultural traditions remain. In Virginia, the Wakefield Ruritan Club’s annual Shad Planking is a political rite of passage for local and statewide candidates. The event is named after the unique method of cooking shad on hardwood planks over an open fire. In North Carolina, event organizers bill the Grifton Shad Festival as “one of the oldest, most fun & shadtastic festivals” in the state.

While Shad in the Classroom requires substantial preparation and orchestration during the winter months, for students the experience begins with the arrival of shad eggs in April. The fish are shuttled in the early morning hours from Edenton to the participating schools, and staff members are often given a hero’s welcome by the students as they arrive. In preparation for the shads’ arrival, teachers set up a specially designed aquarium to control conditions for the shad eggs, and from that point forward students keep conditions just right for the shad eggs to hatch. During the week, students build critical thinking skills by meticulously monitoring and adjusting pH levels and water temperature to ensure the eggs’ survival. They also track the percentage of eggs that perish, reinforcing the importance of water quality for aquatic species.

Students learn to monitor water quality

Students learn to monitor water quality.  Photo credit: Kelly Riley

If things go well (and they usually do), eggs will hatch into shad fry during the week. The timing of eggs hatching depends primarily on the temperature in the tank, with warmer water resulting in faster hatching. Fry initially rely on an attached yolk sac for energy, but their reserves are depleted quickly. One fifth grade student lamented the situation: “I wish that our fish could get free refills of their yolk sac so that they will be okay until Friday!” At the end of the week, teachers take their classes to release the shad into a local waterway. For some, the experience is their first time visiting a river.

Teachers participating in the program also receive intensive training in river and estuarine ecology during an overnight canoe expedition on the Roanoke River. “The museum staff did an excellent job leading the overnight canoe workshop, and the teachers were very excited to have this opportunity to learn first-hand about the riverine ecosystem,” said Scott Gentry, an APNEP staffer who accompanied the teachers on their trek. “It is clear that this experience made an impression that translates back to their own classrooms.”

Teachers spent the night on platforms designed for kayak camping, and they also sampled herring at the legendary Cypress Grill in Jamesville.

“The enthusiasm generated by having real fish in their classrooms will teach students so much more than if they were just reading about it or seeing pictures” said Melissa Dowland, teacher education specialist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

Waiting for release

Shad fry await their release.

Melissa and other museum staff members have received many accolades for their work. She will also be presenting the program to an international audience during the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in July.

Kelly Riley, the teacher at The Oakwood School, concluded her email by noting that “our shad fry escaped from the fry chamber and are enjoying life in the big pond!”

She was referring to the shad tank, but by now many of those fry have made their way to the sounds.

Perhaps they are enjoying life in that “big pond,” and as tourism season opens this summer, we hope you’ll find time to do the same.

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