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Mackay High School has big plans for its aquaculture program

MACKAY, Idaho (AP) — Mackay High School’s aquaculture class has big plans for a tiny school.

They want to become the first certified disease-free hatchery at a high school so they can supply up to 20,000 fish fingerlings a year for state waters. To do it, they are rebuilding the school’s old greenhouse/hatchery building into a bigger facility, the Post Register reports. Students and volunteers are pitching in pounding nails and running power tools.

The new facility is bolstered by past successes with its aquaculture program.

“We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves until we get our disease-free status, but we’ll become an extension of Idaho Fish and Game hatcheries,” said Mackay High School aquaculture teacher Trent Van Leuven. “They’ll put in an order and there will be high school students producing for these particular waters.”

The school program has already had successes that state fisheries biologists have noted. With the help of grants from local businesses, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Idaho National Laboratory, the rebuilt facility will have larger tanks, improved plumbing and improved systems for cleaning and aerating the tanks.

In the past, the hatchery has raised tilapia, catfish, crayfish, sturgeon, kokanee, rainbow trout, golden trout and brook trout.

One of its most notable successes has been raising and stocking California golden trout in the nearby Lower Cedar Creek — the first time golden trout have been successfully planted in an Idaho stream. The project was the brainchild of former student Kali Gamett. With the help of her father, a Forest Service fisheries biologist, she obtained 300 tiny goldens in the fall of 2014. The next spring, she hauled the fingerlings in large plastic baggies stuffed in a backpack into the mountains and released them into the spring-fed creek. For the next two years, she and her father would make the 2-mile hike up to check on the stream.

“We didn’t see any fish so we thought that they didn’t make it,” Gamett said.

But, while working at the Mackay State Fish Hatchery, a co-worker told her that he noticed fish in the once fishless Lower Cedar Creek.

“My dad and I, and my brother, went up there and we started fishing for them,” Gamett said. “I threw the line in and caught one. I was so excited. We got the fish out, and they were healthy, and they were big. That was in 2017.”

The stream has since seen two more stockings of golden trout fingerlings by the school’s aquaculture program with the help of Gamett. She said friends from school fished the stream two weeks ago and caught 13-inch goldens.

Van Leuven said he hopes teaching fish biology to interested students will offer some an opportunity to stay in the community. He points to employment opportunities with the Forest Service, the nearby Fish and Game fish hatchery and the Clear Springs Foods fish brood facility.

Fish biologists from the nearby Mackay State Fish Hatchery have helped mentor the program over the past several years.

Mackay has about 500 people. Job opportunities can be rare.

“If I train a couple of fish biologists every couple of years who will stay here, that’s a win,” Van Leuven said.

He said, while several students participate in the greenhouse and aquaculture facility, only about five or six are seriously involved in the hatchery.

The new building is expected to be completed in October and the hatchery in operation later in the school year. Despite the few numbers, several students were pitching in to help build the facility under the tutelage of local volunteers.


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