Students across Pennsylvania are raising catfish in classrooms

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoors Columnist

Students in 13 schools across Pennsylvania are getting a hands-on opportunity to grow channel catfish for their local waterways.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission provides fingerling size catfish to the schools in October, and the students care for them throughout the school year.

Some of the channel catfish at Berlin-Brothersvalley High School.

“They are raising channel catfish, which are a little more hardy (than trout) when it comes to rearing them, especially in the school,” said Brian McHail, unit leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Cooperative Nursery Unit.

The students use scientific and biologically based methods with the fish; they study water quality and growth rates, for example.

“When they are done with them, they are able to stock them, whether it’s in a stream or lake,” McHail said. “They got them when they were fingerlings, they helped raise them and were able to get something out of them from an educational standpoint and then they can stock them."

The catfish program started about seven years ago with the Berlin-Brothersavlley School District in Somerset County, then it took off in 2019 with a wide number of schools signing on.

The schools raising catfish include:

  • Wilson West Middle School, Berks County;
  • Butler Senior High School and McQuistion Elementary School in Butler County;
  • Commonwealth Charter Academy in Dauphin County;
  • Carmichaels Middle School, Mapletown Junior/Senior High School, West Greene High School, and Waynesburg University in Greene County;
  • Berlin Brothersvalley School, Meyersdale High School, Rockwood High School and Shanksville-Stonycreek School in Somerset County;
  • Bethlehem Center Middle School in Washington County.

Several of the schools overlap with the Trout in the Classroom program provided by Trout Unlimited and the Fish and Boat Commission. The students raise trout from eggs in the fall and release them in public waterways in the spring. More than 400 schools have been enrolled in that program since 2008.

“The nice thing about raising catfish is that you don’t have to cool the water. If you have trout in there, you have to have a chiller. Most of the time they can raise (catfish) with ambient air temperature,” McHail said.

In raising catfish and trout, McHail said the students learn about the different habitats that are needed for cold water versus warm water fish. “There are different opportunities to learn a little differently. A lot of the same principles apply, but there are definitely some differences with their habitat preferences.”

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Brady Guindon looks into the net of channel catfish held by Caleb Rohrs Monday at Berlin-Brothersvalley High School. The two seniors help care for the growing sport fish.

Berlin Brothersvalley

Berlin-Brothersavalley’s program has morphed into an aquaponics system where the dirty water from the catfish is cleaned and filtered by plants. The plants grow in the ammonia-nitrogen rich water, and the students make hanging baskets with the plants for a fundraiser for their FFA program.

“Not only are we raising the fish, it’s helping us raise our plants, too. It’s kind of like a double benefit,” Jackson Will, a junior, said.

Caleb Rohrs, a senior who would like to eventually find a career with the game or fish and boat commission, said, “It’s a good opportunity to play around with plants and fish and take care of them. It teaches us responsibility to take care of all the stuff.”

The dirty water from the channel catfish tanks at Berlin Brothersvalley High School is filtered by plants growing in the water. From left, are students Brady Guindon and Jackwon Will, and agricultrue teacher Dan Miller.

Will likes that everything is reused. The roots of the plants clean the water, and the water is reused by the catfish. The plants grow large enough that the students can make cuttings to grow new plants in the water system, too.

The Berlin students also participate in the Trout in the Classroom program. They received about 5,000 eggs that are now fingerling rainbow trout.

Dan Miller, agriculture teacher at Berlin, said they have been raising catfish six or seven years and 18 years for trout.  They raise about 500 catfish each year.

“There’s a little bit of a similar process, we do a water change-over because of our different types of water quality,” he said about monitoring temperature, pH, ammonia and nitrate levels.

While trout require cold water, he said they actually warm the water for catfish. With the catfish’s water being suitable to grow plants, it becomes its own environment.

“We try to recreate nature, and the plants will use all the available nutrients given off by the fish,” he said. “It’s a really neat process because we are able to use all of our fish wastewater for our greenhouse to raise our plants and give the kids another project, and they are able to sell those plant projects and raise their fish.”

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Shanksville-Stonycreek Agriculture teacher Britton Stutzman records information Monday from Josh Keslar, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fisheries technician. Keslar inspects the fish and tanks used to raise channel catfish at the school.

Shanksville- Stonycreek

Shanksville-Stonycreek High School is in its first year of raising channel catfish. Britton Stutzman, agriculture instructor, learned about the opportunity from other schools in Somerset County.

“What really sparked my interest is being what other schools are providing their kids and then being able to provide the same thing at (Shanksville)," she said.

She remembers the three water tanks being delivered to the school from the Fish and Boat Commission, and they had to assemble the system using photos taken where it was last installed at a prison. She credits her maintenance staff and students for figuring out how to make the system work. 

The channel catfish being raised at Shanksville-Stonycreek High School are about five inches long.

The students have learned a variety of skills in setting up the system with the plumbing and electrical needs. “The kids love it,” she said about getting hands on experience where they care for the fish and test the water quality.

They are raising 300 catfish this year with 100 living in each of the three tanks. Stutzman is able to monitor the water temperature in the tanks through  an app on her phone which helps with making sure the fish are OK in the evenings and weekends.

Re-establishing a waterway

In May, the catfish raised in Somerset County schools will be released into Somerset Lake. The lake has just been refilled after the waterway was drained to replace the breast of the lake.

“Catfish did well in Somerset before. They had a nice channel catfish fishery there before and we want to reestablish that,” said Don Anderson, fourth district commissioner for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “I think having the catfish in the schools program here gives the students a part in the re-establishment, rebuilding of the fish in Somerset Lake. They also helped to build some habitat structure for fish that we are putting in the lake this May.”

He has worked with five schools to have students build wooden boxes that catfish will use on the bottom of the lake, including when they are spawning.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him atbwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on this website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on Facebook@whipkeyoutdoors ,Twitter@whipkeyoutdoors and Instagram atwhipkeyoutdoors.