Something fishy is going on
For the last three years, the New Richmond High School Wildlife Management and Advanced Fish and Wildlife classes have been raising tilapia, a practice called aquaculture, at the high school to give students hands-on experience with wildlife.
On Monday, Dec. 1, agriscience students performed the second harvest of the school’s tilapia before they were filleted to be picked up by interested parties throughout the community.
“Last year, we didn’t have a harvest because we had thermometer issues and the fish grew slower,” said Rachel Sauvola, who teaches both of the wildlife classes. “This is actually last year’s crop of fish that we just harvested. We also have this year’s crop of fish already growing as well. In theory, we will have this new crop of fish ready to go by the end of this school year.”
The students harvested 353 fish, but Sauvola expects the next batch to be much bigger, both in number and in the size . The project is set to harvest 610 tilapia in the spring should everything go well.
This fall, Sauvola has 30 students taking her Wildlife Management class and she expects another 20 students to take part in the Advanced Fish and Wildlife class in the spring.
Randy Calleja of Ready Randy’s, Westfields Hospital and the Hudson Hospital all received about eight pounds of tilapia from the school’s crop this fall. All three parties are hoping to get more fish down the road, while Karen Bremmer from the school’s food services is also looking to get in on the action from the annual harvest.
The harvest day, which took place on Dec. 1, started at 9 a.m. with the students harvesting the fish with nets then layering the tilapia in ice, which is the most humane way to kill the fish, Sauvola said. Once the fish were packed away, the students carted them off to the kitchen where they got the chance to fillet the fish themselves. Once all the filleting was done, the tilapia were frozen again before they were picked up the next day.
“It is funny to watch the kids try to catch the fish as the tank gets more empty because then the tilapia get more elusive and hard to catch,” Sauvola said. “Karen Bremmer opens the kitchen for us after lunch and the kids go to town on filleting the fish. It takes about three hours to get all of those fish filleted and then to clean up all of the mess left behind.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 2, Calleja picked up some of the fish to be taken to Westfields Hospital for a fish fry during lunch. A group of seven students from the agriscience and culinary class accompanied Calleja to help him cook the fish for the hospital employees.
How it got started
When the new high school in New Richmond was still in the planning stages, Sauvola was asked by the district what facilities she would need to bring the NRHS agriscience program even with other top-notch programs in the state and across the region.
“I was asked what facilities top-notch ag programs have and I said that we need to be doing aquaculture,” Sauvola said. “That’s when we had to put our heads together to find tanks from northern Minnesota and the rest of the equipment from Florida and put it all together to make it happen. From there it was a team of community volunteers who helped with placement and electrical things to get the systems up and going.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines aquaculture as the farming of aquatic organisms in both coastal and inland areas involving interventions in the rearing process to enhance production.
Before the program could really get started, Sauvola needed to find somewhere local that she could get the tilapia the students would raise at the high school. She found a willing partner in Future Farm Food and Fuel of Baldwin.
“We have been blessed to work with the Future Farm in Baldwin as the middlemen for our tilapia,” Sauvola said. “These tilapia come from a hatchery in New Mexico, so they contract with them for their own tilapia needs and afford us the opportunity to purchase them each fall.”
Sauvola is also quick to give credit to the students who have taken her wildlife classes for their willingness to embrace the new project and take responsibility of the whole process.
“We have a great team of students that watch water quality and filters and all do the feeding, weighing and measuring,” Sauvola said.
For Sauvola, bringing an aquaculture project to the high school was a no-brainer given the benefits of such a program, both in the classroom and in the community.
“I wanted it as an educational tool in fast-footed thinking, problem-solving and troubleshooting because every day is a new day and you don't know what is going to happen or how to fix the problems,” Sauvola said. “Those are all skills for society today and it the preparation for them to have jobs in future.”
In the long run, Sauvola hopes to use the high school’s aquaculture program to help feed the community.
“My goal for this process is to locally source these fish so that people in our own community are eating food that they know exactly what they’ve been fed and how they’ve been cared for,” Sauvola said. “It was last March that all of the pieces finally came together and my dream became a reality.”
Given the length of the project and its complexity, chores and responsibilities for the tilapia are split between two wildlife classes Sauvola teaches throughout the year.
“Those two classes along with an aquaculture lab manager are the students who are involved with the day-to-day operations,” Sauvola said. “Typically the Wildlife Management students, which is a fall class, are in charge of changing filters and taking care of any clogs or other issues that happen in the tank. The Advanced Wildlife class, which runs in the spring, has more ownership and leadership roles because of their advanced knowledge. They will get involved with the weighing and the measuring as well as changing their feed depending on their weights.”
The one thing Sauvola has enjoyed the most about the aquaculture project is the fact that she has never had to get on her students to take part in the day-to-day activities.
“Many of the students were excited to get the opportunity to the hands-on approach of this project,” Sauvola said. “There are students who know some stuff about fish and others that don’t know anything, which is nice because then those students can learn from each other. There also hasn’t been a time when the students have said no way to any of the chores when it has come to the fish project.”
According to Sauvola, a group of community volunteers and culinary students helped with the filleting of the fish, including Josh Nelson, Mike Heintz, Lisa Turany, Gene Weiler, Erik Poff, Glenn Newby and Laura Feyma’s culinary class.
“It was an awesome blend from everyone, from freshman through seniors who helped with the filleting, along with the community volunteers,” Sauvola said. “Most notably, Mr. Moberg came over to fillet in his dress clothes and he even mopped the floor afterwards too. It was a real team effort.”