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Aspen Elementary pupils helping endangered fish

Carrie Click
Special to The Aspen Times

The Rifle rest stop on the banks of the Colorado is a favorite spot to pull fish out of the water, using flies, rods and reels.

But Thursday, a group of Aspen Elementary School students were doing just the opposite: They were putting fish into the river.

The 11 fish that second-, third- and fourth-graders released into the river are razorback suckers – fish that are native to the Colorado River drainage and are found only from Rifle to Utah. The fish have a history that goes back a million years but, due to loss of habitat, they’ve become endangered.

That’s why the Colorado Division of Wildlife has instigated a reintroduction program. Eight years ago, DOW staff members could only locate 15 of the fish in all of Colorado and Utah. Today there are more than 80,000.

The Aspen Elementary students are playing a role in increasing the numbers of suckers that swim the Colorado’s currents. Working with Stan Johnson, a Grand Junction-based education coordinator with the DOW, and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the kids have been raising the suckers in an aquarium tank at school for the past eight months. And they have learned a lot about these fish along the way.

Johnson gathered the kids at some covered picnic tables at the rest stop after they piled off their school bus Thursday – with a large orange bucket filled with water and the prized fish in tow – before their release project began. Johnson has been working with 10 schools throughout western Colorado on the razorback sucker reintroduction project.

“What can you tell me about the razorback sucker?” Johnson asked the kids.

Arms shot up everywhere.

“They only eat food on the bottom,” said Connor Boyd.

“That’s true,” said Johnson. “That’s why they’re called bottom feeders.”

“They have razors on their backs,” said Sariah Dunn.

“When the males mate, their stomachs turn orange,” said Lauren Gomes.

“People don’t fish for them,” said Cassie Lewis.

“That’s right,” added Johnson. “We have laws that keep people from fishing for the razorback sucker, plus they taste really crummy.”

Johnson explained the procedure for releasing the fish. After dividing into five groups, each group was responsible for releasing one to two fish each. Johnson described to the kids the different jobs of each group member. Johnson also explained each fish would have a tiny tag inserted under its skin so it could be scanned and monitored, and showed the students a big needle he would use to do the job.

“Will it hurt them?” asked Molly Rosenstein.

“That’s a good question,” answered Johnson. “These fish have very few nerve endings in their stomachs so they don’t feel it.”

The first release group got to the river and started the process like seasoned wildlife scientists. Nathan Mohrman ran a scanner over the tag and read off the identification number to Cassie Lewis, who recorded the numbers on a DOW form. Molly Kadota disinfected the needle and handed it off to Johnson, who inserted the tag into the first fish.

Wearing white gloves, Mercedes Faraoni laid the fish out on a ruler, but it wasn’t easy.

“I can’t get it to stop wobbling!” she said.

Finally, the fish laid out straight – it measured 9.5 centimeters – and then, after transferring the sucker into a clear plastic bowl, the whole crew marched the fish down to the water and released it into the river.

Now, with all 11 fish living in the Colorado, it’s up to fate to determine how these Aspen-raised suckers will do. In the meantime, Johnson, the DOW and ACES will continue working with area schools to boost the razorback sucker’s chances for a healthy life in the Colorado.

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Johnson said, taking a break alongside the river. “These kids have done a great job raising these fish and releasing them here.”


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