The sun came out this morning as we turned off the Creek Road down into one of the cornfields of the Atwood Farm here in Craftsbury. The Wildlife Conservation and Management class, along with Sterling’s Naturalist Emeritus, Dick Smyth, and Jud Kratzer, fisheries biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, set out to assess the health of the Whitney Brook right where it feeds into the Black River.

Before the students suited up in their waders, or in some cases bare feet, Jud explained a bit about what electrofishing is and how it works. Here’s the nutshell version of today’s lesson:

  • Electrofishing was conceived of back in the 1950’s.
  • An anode and cathode are attached to a frame pack and used to turn a portion of stream or river into a charged electrical circuit.
  • The process allows you to easily catch and count fish and other lifeforms in a portion of stream by gently stunning them and then netting them.
  • Conservationists & students that use this method need to wear rubber waders or boots to avoid the shock from the water. Jud noted that, since the beginning of electrofishing, there has only been one human fatality recorded, and that person had a heart condition.

There were three students with nets in the river along with Jud and another 2 on the shore with buckets to catch the stunned fish. They swept upstream about 800 feet and, though Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologists would normally do two sweeps and cover more sections of the stream, we stopped to inventory and assess the findings.

Overall they identified seventy-three organisims including brook trout, rainbow trout, orange spotted dace, long nosed dace, brook chubs, crawfish and several macroinvertebrates. The species of fish were predominantly minnows and shiners and there were fewer trout than we hoped to find. The trout habitat appeared to be there but the water might have been too warm due to the lack of riparian cover.

While measuring the species, abundance and overall biomass in the stream the class also assessed the broader environment. They were standing right where the Whitney Brook meets the Black River at the far end of a cornfield on the old Atwood Farm. Crops have been planted right up on the edge of the stream and in the floodplain of the the brook which has contributed to stream bank instability and erosion.

Conservation is, in many ways, an epic compromise. Balancing the needs of the stream and its inhabitants with the needs of the farmer and her family and community shouldn’t be so challenging, but it is. Throw in the uncertainty of climate change and the agricultural economy, and something challenging gets even more complicated.

By the end of class, they arrived at the conclusion that planting trees along the edge of the farmland would be an ideal way to stabilize the stream and provide the shade needed to keep the temperature regulated so that a diverse fish population can thrive. Waiting ten or twenty years for the roots of an elm or maple to become deep enough and strong enough to stabilize the soil isn’t an option so it is recommended to also plant a faster growing species such as willow directly on the bank. Stream bank restoration efforts like this take patience and dedication on the part of the landowner. A little help from others such as the Craftsbury Conservation Commission and Sterling College can make it happen.

Want to see the rest of the images from class? Of course you do!  Click here to see them all.


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