Page students celebrate anniversary of razorback sucker revival with fish release

By TODD GLASENAPP, Arizona Daily Sun Correspondent 04/26/2002 

PAGE -- The razorback sucker recovery program at Page High School celebrated its fifth birthday recently with a trip to Shiprock, N.M., of all places.  PHS students traveled to the small Four Corners community to deposit dozens of the endangered fish into the San Juan River.  Razorback suckers, once a common fish in the Colorado River system, are beginning to gain a tiny foothold in the San Juan arm of Lake Powell.  Efforts to revive the razorback sucker population in the Colorado's upper basin began in 1997.

They're doing even better in the lower Colorado basin below Glen Canyon Dam -- a school of about 100 of them were observed from a helicopter in Lake Havasu this winter. The state Game & Fish Department has been releasing them since 1994.

In Page, about 20 high school students a year have been working in an award-winning Field Science Partnership with the National Park Service and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, among other agencies.  They pulled about 50 razorback suckers from an irrigation pond at Lake Powell National Golf Course before school Tuesday, April 16. The fish, destined for the San Juan, had been raised from brute stock at a fish hatchery in Big Water, Utah.  "Over the last three years, we've picked up seven of them in Lake Powell over on the San Juan arm," said Quent Bradwisch, fisheries biologist with the Utah DWR. "The fish kind of drift down looking for slack water, and some of the best slack water just happens to be Lake Powell."  Dams and the introduction of nonnative predatory fish are blamed for a vast reduction in the number of razorback suckers and other endangered fish like the Colorado squawfish and the humpback chub.

PHS students aren't just pulling razorbacks from nets at the golf course ponds. They're also monitoring the growth of the fish, testing water quality at Lake Powell for bacteria and learning more in Lori Shaw's research biology classroom. But there is nothing like watching the product of their work first-hand, said Shaw, who has led the program since 1998. The Shiprock trip would prove to be a culmination of months of study.

"That's probably one of the most exciting things for the students to see, to see them go back into the wild," Shaw said. "The fish will get pit-tagged, including radio transmitters, so we can follow those fish when they're pulled out of the water or if they're caught." Shaw's students will develop a Powerpoint presentation to spread news of their work to students in the Page school system and to the park service and the local Rotary Club.

The high school course is dovetailed with Robin Scaramazzo's Environmental Biology 105 at Coconino Community College in Page. The razorback suckers are considered, along with the California Condors, energy production, lake ecology and other local issues.  "Working with the Research Bio kids is an excellent example of accessing local resources in helping them to grasp the work that is being done here in Page," Scaramazzo said.  Lake Powell National doesn't mind the attention drawn by students in orange life jackets along the ponds. Golfers are glad to hear about the program, golf course superintendent Wil Mortensen said.  Mortensen said it's another good use for the ponds, which are connected to Page's water treatment plant near Lake Powell National's nine-hole course across the highway.  "The golf course has been very, very cooperative with letting us work on it," Utah DWR's Bradwisch said. "We try and not harass the golfers too much and they try and not thump the kids too hard. No injuries and no complaints."

Bradwisch said he's hoping to recruit some of the students into the natural resources field. They might become sports reporters, biologists or even teachers, he said.  But the other recruitment that has interested Bradwisch is a couple hundred miles to the east, along a sleepy section of the San Juan River.

"We have documented natural recruitment in the river," he said. "Last year we didn't stock any fish and that was to prove fish were still returning to spawning areas.  "After the success they found last year, they're just looking for all the razorback suckers they can get into the river to try and give the program a spike over there. They are still fairly uncommon to find, but biologists have found a couple spawning.

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