Almost every day for the past two years, Palisade High School science teacher Patrick Steele and his students — including his daughters — spent their free time looking after fish.
Not just one or two, but about 250 razorback suckers, a species once on the precipice of extinction. The fish were cared for on a daily basis by students lending their free time.
They call themselves the Palisade High Hatchery. And on Friday, the fish were released into the Colorado River, capping off a project years in the making.
“I would take my classes to the Ouray National Fish Hatchery on 24 Road. I saw how much kids loved it. They loved interacting with the fish,” Steele said. “Then Mike Gross (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish culturist) said that a professional goal of his was always to start a fish hatchery at a school. My ears perked up. Teaching and growing up in Palisade, this could be a huge teaching moment. Not just for the science behind it, but for the community aspect.”
The fish hatchery is in a building on the high school campus that’s no longer than one Ford truck and no wider than two. Staff and students had to work hard to raise money to renovate the building so the fish could not only survive but thrive.
Steele brought his classes to the hatchery, which is usually run by a rotating group of students and some core members. Gross would come in to lend a hand as well.
Steele even brought a group of his students to a hatchery in California so that they could learn how to run one.
The razorback sucker is one of the largest suckerfish on the continent, but their population has dwindled. In the 1990s, biologists counted the razorback sucker population below 20.
That sparked conservation efforts such as this one to spur and revive the species.
“It’s been incredible to see the motivation and excitement from these teenagers. It was inspiring and gives me hope that the next generation is going to fix a lot of these environmental issues,” Gross said. “Suckerfish are not seen as an important animal. They’re not popular like salmon or trout. It’s cool to see them embrace and care for these fish. The kids even tagged them and none of them died; you don’t always see that from novices.”
From old and current students to family members, dozens of people gathered at the Riverbend Park boat launch on Friday to see the fish released into the wild.
It was cathartic for the students and staff in their maroon fish hatchery shirts. Over the ambiance of the river and birds chirping, you could hear the excitement from the people who poured their heart and soul into this project.
“It’s like sending your kid off to college. You raised them up and you know that they’re going to go off to a better life, better opportunities. But it’s bittersweet,” said Addie Steele, a senior who has been at her father’s side since day one.
“I mean, we started out with them as these tiny baby fish and then released them at 12 inches. It’s amazing to be a part of this whole experience,” Ella Steele added.
When the time came, a truck hauling a fish tank from the Fish and Wildlife Service backed down the boat ramp and students began netting the fish and releasing them into the river.
They kissed some goodbye, especially two of their favorites.
“There were two who were big and didn’t really know what they were doing, so I named them Chad and Brad after frat bros,” said Charlotte Allen, a freshman at Palisade. “I’ve always wanted to work in wildlife, so this has really let me explore my passion.”
When the final fish was released and everyone said their goodbyes, Patrick Steele contemplated what’s next. He needs to fix up the hatchery, clean tanks and get more fish for August. But he also reflected on doing something he loves with his daughters.
“No words, man. Who else can experience this with their family? I love being around them. They’re great kids,” Steele said, collecting himself as he held back tears. “They love being around fish, they love taking care of them. They’re pets to them. Ella wants to be a marine biologist. Not living by the coast, it’s tough to get experience with that. So I’m glad we were able to give her that.
“And Addie, she’s been here since day one and has been a leader. This is something that you only get to do one time, so we were going to make the most of it.”