Students in Casa Grande High School's United Anglers program are giving their young steelhead trout a clip job, an important step in preparing the fish to be released into the wild.
It is a simple procedure — just snip off a part of the small adipose fin, which is located between the dorsal fin and tail.
The problem isn't the complexity of the operation. The problem is the quantity. The students are faced with clipping 40,000 slippery, squirming fingerlings.
"It's not exactly easy," says student Jessica Wells. "They are very slimy."
Wells explains that the clipping allows fishermen to quickly determine if the fish they catch is a hatchery fish, and therefore legal to keep, or a wild steelhead, which must be released.
United Anglers' advisor Dan Hubacher adds that the procedure can also allow researchers to trace a fish's genetic coding back to the hatchery where it was raised.
"It is absolutely crucial," Hubacher says. "Tissue samples can map out where the fish came from and help us trace its family tree."
Clipping is common practice in hatcheries throughout California and the entire Northwest.
United Angler Sami Stevens points out that the procedure doesn't injure or even hurt the fish. "It's just fatty tissue," she explains.
The clipping is a necessary step in raising the steelhead in the Casa Grande hatchery, the only licensed school hatchery in the nation.
This is the first year the students have raised steelhead. In the past, they have concentrated exclusively on salmon.
The process begins with eggs obtained from the Warm Springs Hatchery, located on Dry Creek near Lake Sonoma.
The students obtained the eggs last February and carefully cared for them until they hatched and the small steelhead were placed in the hatchery's fish runs, where they will be kept until this coming February. At that point, they will be released into Dry Creek.
United Angler Dakota Iribarne points out that steelhead are different from salmon, which return from the ocean to the waterway from where they were released to spawn and die.
"Steelhead will stay in the ocean a couple of years, come back to spawn, and then go back to the ocean," he says.
The students have quickly learned that not all steelhead, like not all people, are created equal.
"There are some big ones," notes student Jaylin Marshall. "They eat the little ones and kind of boss the others around."
As of last week, students had clipped around 5,000 fish, but Hubacher said the clipping will proceed faster as they get the hang of how the procedure is performed.
"They are beginning to pick up the pace," he explains. "But they still have long way to go."
(Contact John Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org)