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Thanks for all the fish

Fourth-grade students Nathan Encinias, front, and Lee Miller release minnows into a channel of the Rio Grande. They and other students raised the fish in their classroom at Bernalillo Elementary School. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Thick, sticky mud lined the banks of the Rio Grande this week as about 50 students trooped down to the river to say goodbye to fish they raised at school this year.

Under gray skies and a light rain, the Bernalillo Elementary School fourth-graders used plastic buckets to release flathead chub, carpsuckers, red shiners, western mosquito fish, and other species native to the Rio Grande.

Sagan Hasenauer, 9, made a video as he released a fish into a muddy side channel in the bosque at Santa Ana Pueblo.

“It just kind of hung around, like it was saying goodbye,” Sagan said of the fish he let loose Tuesday.

Sagan and his classmates are among some 450 kids statewide participating in a program called “native fish in the classroom” managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since January, the Bernalillo students have raised these fish in tanks in their classroom, taking turns feeding the fish, cleaning their tanks, and performing a variety of tests to ensure their survival.

“I’ve learned that taking care of fish is a big responsibility,” said Rylen Masawiestewa, 9, a member of Santa Ana Pueblo.

Students learned to test the water regularly for acidity, and for a variety of chemicals that could potentially harm the fish.

Angela James, a fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helped set up aquariums in the classrooms and train children how to raise the fish.

On Tuesday, she supervised as kids released the 2- to 4-inch-long fish into a side channel thick with young willows and cottonwoods.

Flows in the river are high this spring, and water is flowing in this channel, which is usually dry. Mosquitoes are abundant.

“On the count of three, we’re going to say goodbye to the fish,” James told the children shortly after they finished their work. Fifty children responded by shouting “goodbye!”

Ask the kids what they learned and everybody has a response.

“I learned their habitats and how they survive,” said Lee Miller, 10.

Chub are scavenger fish, observed Nathan Encinias, 10. “They actually clean the bottom of the river,” he said.

This is the first year Bernalillo Elementary has participated in the program. Other participating schools are located in Albuquerque, San Antonio, San Lorenzo and Silver City.

The purpose of the program is to make children more aware of the river and the native fish that live there, James said.

“We’re introducing the concept of stewardship,” she said. “Now they know there’s something in the river that they took care of. If the river goes dry, these animals have no place to go.”