New Mexico students recharge Rio Grande with native fish

May 2, 2019
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Students release various species of native fish during a field trip to the banks of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The Rio Grande is rebounding after a year in which it nearly went dry through its most populated stretch in New Mexico. Federal biologists say this year's flows have improved and the fish stand a good chance. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — With the Rio Grande flowing bank to bank, dozens of children gathered at the river’s edge Thursday to release native fish they spent months raising as part of an ongoing conservation program that links classrooms around the United States with the outdoors.

The release comes as the river — one of North America’s longest waterways — turns a corner after record low flows in 2018 forced federal managers to broker a deal to keep the river wet through New Mexico’s most populated area.

Parts of the river south of Albuquerque did go dry, prompting wildlife managers to organize rescue missions for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. More than 70,000 of the tiny fish had to be moved to flowing parts of the river last year.

This spring, the minnow has a chance to rebound and the other native fish that call the Rio Grande home are getting a boost thanks to healthy snowmelt in the higher elevations.

Surrounded by school children, Angela Palacios turned toward the river and proclaimed that it was a wonderful sight.

“This means your fish are on their way to spawning, reproducing and starting the next generation,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist told the students after they emptied their red cups into the river.

The agency has teamed with schools across New Mexico, Texas, California and some East Coast states to teach students about river systems, native fish and ecology. As part of the program, students at Monte Vista Elementary and The Montessori Elementary and Middle School in Albuquerque have spent a semester feeding their fish, keeping copious records and checking the water chemistry.

Silvery minnows aren’t part of the mix because of their status as an endangered species, but Palacios said the fish that are raised by the students all coexist with minnows in the Rio Grande. Those include warm water species such as longnose dace, red shiners, western mosquito fish and flat-head chubs.

The species raised by a particular school depends on the river system near that school. The program has grown to 16 New Mexico schools from just a few in 2011. Most work with fish native to the Rio Grande while some are connected to the Gila River in western New Mexico.

Palacios said the hope is to recruit more schools near other rivers.

Sherry Haworth, a science teacher at Montessori, said the program offers a way for children to become invested in their communities. For some of her students, this marked their first trip to the river.

“I think unfortunately a lot of us feel very detached from our environment,” she said. “This is kind of the heart of our city and for so many reasons we need to be much more involved, much more attentive to what’s going on and it definitely starts with the kids.”

The lessons aren’t always easy, Palacios said.

Last year, students in San Antonio, New Mexico, had to turn their fish over to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge because their stretch of the Rio Grande was dry.

“They got to see it and they recognized that their fish didn’t have a home,” she said. “We went to the dry riverbed and they got to see the remains of dead fish. They saw the impact that we’re having. They’re starting to recognize it and that’s important.”

In New Mexico, federal biologists say the Rio Grande has lost two of its native species in recent decades. Five additional species have been extirpated from the river over the years, and the silvery minnow faces an uphill battle after its population was hammered by last year’s dry conditions.

About 200,000 captive-raised minnows were released in the fall and spring, and officials hope the river’s current flows will help them spawn.

In Texas, wildlife officials are weighing whether to cease their stocking and monitoring efforts for the silvery minnow in the Big Bend reach of the Rio Grande until environmental flow requirements can be determined and implemented.