Public school students stock brook trout in Norton’s Creek

ASSIGINACK—Grade 4/5 students from Assiginack Public School and Grade 6/7 students from Central Manitoulin Public School gained first-hand knowledge of ecology and biology at a Manitoulin Streams event.

“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to see how ecosystems are part of Manitoulin and it applies not only to what they’ve learned in school but what they experience on a daily basis here on the Island,” said Jeremy Mailloux, Grade 4/5 teacher at Assiginack Public School.

On what was the coldest morning of December so far, the students arrived at a garage on Bidwell Road, formerly owned by the late Bob Hutton. They filed into the massive uninsulated structure where Manitoulin Streams volunteers had set up a sprawling workspace, eager for these young helpers to get to work.

Their task for the day was to place so-called “eyed eggs” into hole-filled contraptions called Jordan/Scotty Fish Egg Incubators, or “Scotty Boxes” for short. The eggs are called eyed because a tiny pair of eyes can be seen through the translucent egg membrane, along with the beginnings of a tail.

The students pressed on to make light work of filling each compartment in the Scotty boxes. It was truly an illuminating experience.

First, they received some instructions and a note on the importance of their work from Manitoulin Streams project co-ordinator Seija Deschenes. Then, they dispersed to tables around the room with small bowls full of the delicate brook trout eggs. 

Using spoons and eyedroppers, students placed the eggs into individual compartments in the Scotty Boxes. Although each space has a small hole, the developing alevins (recently-spawned trout that still carry a yolk sac) will not be able to exit the hole until they have absorbed the nutrients in their yolk sac and it has shrunk down.

All told, about 70 helpers worked to set up the boxes. To make sure everything was proceeding properly, Manitoulin Streams’ volunteers and employees circulated throughout the room and kept their eyes on the students’ progress. 

Nearly 70 student volunteers came to support Manitoulin Streams and its Norton’s Creek rehabilitation project at the annual eyed-egg event.

Newly-elected Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) Trustee Margaret Stringer was also there for the event that she has experienced several times in her roles as teacher and principal of Island schools. She said the cold snap did not deter anyone from carrying out this important work.

“The kids are all bundled up and everybody’s come prepared. They’re heading out to the river to put the flats in so the kids can see where they go,” said Trustee Stringer. “As the adults in that group, to see kids getting involved with nature and helping mother nature to improve and being able to allow these trout to have a chance and increase in numbers, that’s pretty cool.”

Ms. Deschenes has been running the brook trout eyed egg event since 2009. She said Mr. Hutton purchased the land along Norton’s Creek as a hunting property and approached Manitoulin Streams about restoring the creek to the way he remember it when he fished the waters when he was young.

“We did an assessment with Collège Boréal to find out if there’s brook trout in the creek still, and we couldn’t find any. We started that summer doing restoration,” said Ms. Deschenes.

The sun shone brightly upon these students as they braved the cold to help reinforce brook trout populations in Norton’s Creek.

The work on the creek included building fences to keep livestock out of the water, adding weeping weirs to narrow the creek and increase its depth, and adding rocks and gravel to enhance the fish habitat.

The reason for placing the eggs in the Scotty Boxes is that they will remain protected from predators and exhaustion before they are big enough to swim out of the enclosure and begin their journey. These eggs are from Nipigon-strain brook trout and are sourced from Hill’s Lake Hatchery in Englehart. Manitoulin Streams also receives support from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) for this undertaking.

Each year, different school groups get to participate in the event from across Manitoulin Island. Ms. Deschenes said the best part of the event is seeing the wonder in children’s eyes.

“They’re amazed by the eggs and being part of it. It’s nice to get them out into the field,” she said.

The students seemed to enjoy their time as well. Several of them said they found the process interesting, and for Grade 5 student Saveen Clayton, it was a way to ensure her and her family would have some catches next year when they go fishing.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for them to be part of revitalizing Norton’s Creek and being part of an environmental initiative that is important for Manitoulin Island,” said Mr. Mailloux.

After all the eggs settled into their new Scotty Box homes, the students enjoyed a lunch break provided by the volunteers. Then, they loaded back into their buses and drove to the Norton’s Creek site.

There is a small outdoor classroom at Norton’s Creek, where retired MNRF biologist Bob Florean gave a brief lecture on the history of the project and why the work they were doing was so important.  

A short walk upstream, Manitoulin Streams’ Liam Campbell and Maria Diebolt entered the creek to place down the first of the Scotty Boxes. After finding a suitable location, they placed a large rock on the box and packed it in with clean, pea-sized gravel. They repeated this until all the Scotty Boxes were safely nestled into the creek.

With their job complete, the students headed back to their buses to resume their school day. Ms. Deschenes says the group placed 10,000 eggs into Norton’s Creek. Since 2009, Manitoulin Streams has placed 70,000 eggs in the creek.

“It’s a real community event and we’re so happy that the Huttons are still continuing to allow us to utilize their facilities and help improve the stream,” said Ms. Deschenes.

For a video feature report on the brook trout stocking event, please visit The Expositor’s website at manitoulin.ca.