Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

SOLs Come to Life on the James River
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 24, 2012, 13:05

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson The bravest Prince George students volunteered to kiss the frozen fish used as crab bait for good luck, while some of their more timid classmates and teachers demured.

A group of students from J.E.J. Moore Middle School in Prince George County set sail on Tuesday to bring their sixth grade studies of the Chesapeake Bay watershed Standards of Learning to life.

“It’s to give them a hands on experience with working with these SOLs,” said Prince George teacher Emily Wilson, explaining the purpose of the field trip down the James River aboard a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat.

Every spring and fall, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation takes students from public and private schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed on day long boat trips to discover the water resources in their own back yard.

“Some students we get never have this kind of opportunity unless they come on this field trip,” said Ken Slazyk, one of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation environmental educators who manages the boat rides. “...The kids who come out never would normally come out into the environment to even go on a boat ride, or even to just look at the river, so that in itself gets them excited to be here.”

While students were sharing information they already knew about the six state spanning, 64,000 square mile bay watershed, like the fact that it’s the largest watershed in the United States, Slazyk and fellow environmental educator Eric Wiegandt pitched in with some supplemental facts. For instance, the Chesapeake watershed is the third largest in the world.

The appearance of a bald eagle over head provided an introduction to a discussion of some of the unique plants and animals that live in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and how the water, plants and animals fit together in an ecosystem they share with 17 million people.

“When I was in middle school, the bald eagle was near extinction,” Wiegandt said, pointing at the eagle flying to its nest. “You didn’t see them in the wild like that.”

He explained how the pesticide DDT, which was widely used in the United States before the 1970s, decimated the population of the national bird through a process known as bioaccumulation.

As small creatures absorbed DDT, they were consumed by slightly larger creatures, moving up the food chain to eagles, at the top.

“The top level predators get the highest doses,” Wiegandt said.

DDT made the shells of eagle eggs so thin, they either broke when the parents sat on them or failed to retain enough warmth for the chicks to survive and hatch.

In the 70s, when DDT was banned and the Clean Air and Water Acts were passed, the eagle population began to rebound. Virginia is now home to the third largest population of eagles in the country, Wiegandt said.

There was also discussion of sturgeon, the ancient and enormous dinosaur-like fish that are making a come back in the James, especially in the areas of the river between Hopewell and Richmond. They have also become the focus of a study by a graduate of the same school system currently shaping the minds of the youngsters touring the river on Tuesday.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Students got a chance to catch and examine blue crabs before the crustaceans hibernate for the winter months.

Matt Balazik, who grew up in Prince George County, is now a VCU Doctoral student in biology, counting and tracking the James River’s sturgeon.

Oysters have experienced a dramatic decline in population since English colonists arrived in Jamestown, Slazyk said. More than 98 percent of the oyster population in the bay has been lost in the last 400 years.

Slazyk explained that oysters are an essential part of maintaining a healthy bay because they act as natural filters, cleaning the water.

Aquatic grasses, which also filter the water and provide essential habitat for creatures such as blue crabs, have also taken a dramatic hit, as increasingly cloudy water has blocked sunlight from reaching beds of the grasses.

The students got a chance to learn about water quality first hand, pulling up buckets from the James to test its dissolved oxygen levels, temperature, salinity, pH level, phosphate concentration and turbidity.

“That kind of hands on learning is what sticks with them,” said Tonya Humphrey, another one of the Moore teachers on the trip, as the students performed tests on the water.

The most excitement came when the students began to see the creatures that call the water home, extracting crab pots and a variety of small fish from the James for an up-close look at their aquatic neighbors.

“I think they get most of their interest from the critters that we’re catching, the organisms, fish and crabs, seeing bald eagles gets some of them excited,” Wiegandt said of the students he sees regularly on the boat.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Small, flounder-like fish known as hog chokers were amongst the catch students netted and released,.

“They’re not as interested in the water quality, but when we relate the water quality to the organisms that are living here, that addresses not only their classroom curriculum, but it helps them to make connections between their behaviors and how they’re impacting water quality,” he added.

To that point, the day also included a look at how “dead zones” form. When an overabundance of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous end up in the water, algae flourishes and dies, sucking oxygen out of the water, making certain areas uninhabitable for fish, crabs, oysters and other bay wildlife.

“Some of the points we brought up while we were talking, kind of revealing to the kids where pollution comes from, and it really comes from all of us, I think that was a key point that they try to get across to them so that if every kid who went on this program reduced their footprint on the environment by even a small amount, it adds up over time,” said John Fowler, Senior Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who went along for the ride.

Slazyk and Wiegandt talked about how agriculture, wastewater and runoff from urban areas all contribute to the pollution of the bay, and discussed ways to reduce use of electricity and water.

Slazyk said that the students on the boat on Tuesday could only make a small impact, spreading good practices could make all the difference.

“What if 17 million people in the watershed did that?” Slazyk asked the students.

Returning to port at the Jordan Point Marina, Wilson said previous Chesapeake Bay Foundation trips with students had shown her they retain the lessons learned on the river.

“I think a lot of times, they reference the trips more than they reference the information in the class,” she said. “They remember everything that Ken and Eric tell them more than what I do.”

The students said that the trip was a fun way to reinforce the ideas they learned in class.

“I think it was one of the better field trips I’ve ever been on,” said Kendall Hill.

“I had a lot of fun catching the fish and playing with them and catching the crabs,” said Niaja King.

King said that classroom questions about the James River and its plants and animals would now be easier to answer because she had spent a day immersed in its sights, sounds, scents and science.

Hill agreed that it helped him put information about the James River and Chesapeake Bay in context.

“It helped me a lot to learn about what it means for fish to be living in rivers and different sorts of interesting stuff about the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

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