Biologist boosts on-site learning at Tannehill
State program aims to hook new anglers
Friday, December 21, 2007
News staff writer
State fisheries biologist Maurice Jackson guesses that most of the thousands of Alabama schoolchildren he visits each year have never seen a native fish, much less caught or touched one.
Fishing is on the decline here and nationally. Jackson, one of three aquatics educators in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, shares part of the agency's mission to recruit the state's next generation of anglers.
Each year since 2004, Jackson has traveled to Alabama schools conducting fish encounters with a truck-mounted tank literally swimming with bass, bream and catfish.
"A lot of places I go, most kids have only seen fish like these at the grocery store," he said. "It sounds surprising. But it's not really unusual."
This summer the department's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division moved Jackson from a Northport district office to Tannehill State Park. There, he will work with the roughly 20,000 kids who come through the Tannehill Learning Center and other programs, five times the number he has seen previously.
His job is also growing to include teaching stream ecology and monitoring freshwater marine life in the park's Mill and Mud creeks.
Fisheries section Chief Stan Cook said Jackson's move to Tannehill is an experiment to increase the impact of the agency's environmental message. Almost 500,000 Tannehill visitors a year are already primed and interested in the outdoors, he said.
"With this, hopefully, the classrooms will be coming to us," he said.
Cook said eventually he would like to develop teacher workshops, classroom videos and environmental camps from Tannehill.
"From our perspective, we'll take Tannehill's resources, inventory them, learn what we can...," he said. "If we do what I think we can in Tannehill, as funds become available, we'd try to repeat that at Oak Mountain and other state parks or in a partnership with a city or county" government.
School visits will remain a key part of Jackson's job. On a typical visit, children gather around, ask questions and occasionally are grossed out by Jackson's frank talks about fish anatomy.
"They ask about the fish's nares (nasal cavities) and how the gills work," he said. "I explain how their bodies feel slimy because they're covered in mucus."
His lessons, intended to instill respect for the natural world, close when children get to handle a live but anesthetized fish.
His traveling fish show includes bass and bream, but also 20 lesser-known species such as the Alabama hogsucker, banded sculpin, creek chub, riffle minnow and tricolor shiner.
Fewer are fishing:
Fishing, and the revenue and advocacy for clean streams and natural lands, has been declining in Alabama for two decades, conservationists say.
From 1987 to 2006, annual sales of freshwater fishing licenses dropped 37 percent, from 642,901 to 404,582. Sales of annual resident fishing licenses and others that represent serious anglers dropped 47 percent, said Doug Darr, fisheries' Aquatic Education Coordinator.
"We used to think most license sales were to avid anglers ... We now know most of our license buyers are occasional anglers."
Alabama's numbers reflect a decline nationally in hunting and fishing that has been blamed on everything from single-parent households to lack of access to streams and hunting grounds to competition from television, iPods and organized team sports.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year that U.S. residents 16 and older who fished had dropped from 34.1 million in 2001 to 30 million last year, even as the population grew.
Promoting hunting and fishing is an immediate financial imperative for wildlife agencies such as Alabama's - the state fisheries section derives more than half its $7 million budget from a federal excise tax on sporting equipment, with the rest supplied primarily by state fishing and hunting license fees.
Darr, 51, a Midwesterner who grew up playing in streams and woods of the Missouri Ozarks, said fewer kids have the time or opportunity to catch tadpoles or collect crawfish at a favorite creek.
The real job of his brand of education, he said, is to provide those memorable outdoor experiences.
Tannehill proved the perfect place for that, he said.
The 1,500-acre park, developed around the Civil War-era iron furnaces, includes the Iron and Steel Museum and pioneer structures used in local history and natural science walking tours.
Jackson said he was drawn to the setting after he talked officials into holding a trout fishing rodeo in the park's Mud Creek two years ago. Last year, the state's record 9-pound, 1-ounce rainbow trout was taken from the creek, which was stocked with fish for the occasion.
This fall, in the first survey of stream fishes since 1996, Jackson, other staff and the Geological Survey of Alabama counted 24 fish species, an improvement over the last count of 18, but poor by conservation standards.
The creeks in excellent condition should support 55 species, Jackson said.
In the spring, staff from the Alabama Biodiversity Center will add to the study by counting macroinvertebrates - insects, snails and mussels - in the streams.
"Attention is turning back to these streams because of (housing) development upstream and because they drain into tributaries of the Cahaba," he said. "There's a small problem - not a large one - developing because of silting."
Fisheries staff say the Tannehill streams, though not otherwise noteworthy, are classic examples of streams in trouble because of runoff from construction and poor forestry and farming practices.
Jackson will start a teaching schedule in the spring. Park director Marty Everse said he hopes the state fisheries' presence at the park will mean more school groups coming specifically to learn stream biology as well as fish.
"The partnership is good for us because we'll have help maintaining the stream," he said. "This is ideal for Maurice because he is a stone's throw from a creek that's full of fish and makes a good outdoor classroom."