Har-Ber Students Work to Aid Fish Habitats

The Northwest Arkansas Fish Habitat Alliance has partnered with Har-Ber High School agriculture classes to improve the region’s fish habitats.

Fish habitats are important for managing fish populations, said Jon SteinArkansas Game and Fish Commission district fisheries supervisor.

Preserving the habitats is a hot topic at the moment, as many regional lakes and reservoirs are 40-80 years old, he said. The habitats that were once present in those waterways are now gone, in large part due to the loss of woody habitat-like trees.

“The reduction or loss of fish habitats corresponds with a reduction in sport fish populations,” Stein said, adding state conservation agencies have observed a decline in hunting and fishing license sales over the last 30 years. “The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is working statewide to improve fish habitats in these lakes and rivers.”

Fish habitats benefit from aquatic vegetation in many ways, he said.

“The vegetation provides a place for small fish to hide and escape predation or from being eaten by other fish,” Stein said. “Many research studies have shown how reproduction and recruitment of Largemouth Bass is much higher in lakes with native aquatic vegetation than lakes that lack the structures.”

The vegetation also provides oxygen in lakes that’s vital for fish survival and food and nutrients to certain insects and smaller fish that provide food for larger predatory fish, he said.

Learning in Action

Har-Ber High School is the only Springdale school participating in the program at this time, Stein said. Six high schools and a youth bass fishing organization are currently contributing to the project.

“Getting to watch students use skills and knowledge they have learned in class to help solve a real-world problem has been rewarding,” said Jonathan Roberts, Har-Ber High School agriculture teacher. “Exposing students to community service opportunities and careers in natural resources is another reward that might not traditionally be available in an agriculture class.”

Four Plant Science classes with about 75 students and three Greenhouse Management classes with about 70 students are working on the project by planting eel grass, Roberts said. The plant science curriculum covered includes plant anatomy, propagation techniques and sustainability. Greenhouse management curriculum includes pest and disease identification and control, controlling environmental conditions and maintaining a production schedule.

“It has been a very great experience to see how the plant systems grow in the natural state,” said Kaiden Sherrill, an Agriculture. Leadership and Communication student. “I hope that it creates better fishing locations and an understanding of NWA’s fisheries and their habitats.”

The agriculture classes are hoping to grow 300 eel grass plants in their first attempt of the project, Roberts said.

“We are using eel grass because it is really easy to propagate in a greenhouse,” Stein said. “We will be expanding in the future to allow more plants, if that is decided by the Har-Ber Ag. department.”

The school received trays of eel grass parent plants from the AGFC plant nursery on Lake Degray in Southern Arkansas in support of the project, Roberts said.

“We began the process of using vegetative propagation and plant division to start our new plants,” he said.

All project materials are recycled and donated for the project, he said. A local landscaper provided plant pots and trays to hold and transport the plants. Project water tanks were made from recycled intermediate bulk container tanks, which were also donated by a local company.

Community partnerships are a significant factor in the habitat recovery project, Stein said.

“It has been great seeing community partners take interest in our program and provide their expertise and materials with our students to get this project started,” Roberts said. “This project should be a great way to expose students to field experiences while connecting it to their classroom learning.”

Growing Opportunity

The fish habitat improvement program began this year, and the nonprofit alliance will begin reaching out to local businesses for funding this month to continue offering free participation in the project by area schools.

“If we receive funding, the habitat builds will take place in spring and fall of 2024,” Stein said, noting the eel grass is currently growing in Har-Ber’s nursery.

“Eel grass would normally go dormant during the winter,” Roberts said. “We hope to provide the right growing conditions in our greenhouse to extend the growing season and get our young plants big enough to survive in the wild.”

Once area lake temperatures begin to warm in the spring, Har-Ber students will take their eel grass plants to Bob Kidd Lake west of Prairie Grove to aid in habitat improvement, Stein said.

“A group of students will work with AGFC biologists to place containment pens in suitable areas and protect the plants while they get established,” Roberts said. “The vegetation in the lake will provide feeding areas and shelter to fish, as well as food for waterfowl and turtles.”

It could take up to two years for the aquatic vegetation to be fully established at Bob Kidd Lake through the project, Stein said.

Sherrill, a 17-year-old junior, said he’s already learned a lot about fishery habitats and project management through the project.

“I learned how to plan the materials that I needed, prepare them, set goals and time management,” he said, adding he would like to do some form of land clearing and to work with large machinery after high school. “I would get to make my own schedule, travel to different places and learn land management.”

Outdoor recreation and natural resources is a large industry in Northwest Arkansas with many career opportunities, Roberts said.

“I think this partnership will open doors for our students and provide them with creative ways to connect their passions to careers,” he said.

The Northwest Arkansas Fish Habitat Alliance is linked to the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Arkansas Game and Fish and is focused on introducing people to the outdoors, according to project support documents.

The alliance is seeking 10 high schools that are interested in improving fish populations and fish habitats on local lakes for the 2024 iteration of the program, Stein said. Alliance staff is currently discussing program participation with Lincoln, Prairie Grove, Cedarville, Siloam Springs and Eureka Springs schools.

“This program is happening in NWA, but we could see it expanding statewide in the future,” Stein said.

Interested program participants can contact Stein at jonathan.stein@agfc.ar.gov or 479-640-6422.