Trinidad State students experience salmon spawn

Biologist Jim White is educating Alexandria Haslett, Joseph Sanchez, and Zach Vallo about salmon spawning./Courtesy photo by Matt Young

ALAMOSA — For an aquaculture student a field trip doesn’t get any better than a mountain lake and the spawning of Kokanee salmon. 

Jim White, biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, led the demonstration for the Trinidad State Aquaculture program at Lake Nighthorse near Durango. The manmade lake is named after former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and was created by pumping water from the Animas River through a six-foot pipe that spans over two miles and rises 800 feet. The lake is stocked with freshwater Kokanee salmon and brown trout.

But this was a hands-on trip. Students would learn how science can help assure there’s a salmon crop in future years.  Trinidad State students stood on a platform that has a series of nets attached to it which allow fish to swim in, but not out. The students learned how to express eggs from the female fish while holding the fish bottom side up and gently but firmly running a thumb along its belly to force the eggs out near the tail fin. A stream of sperm is then squeezed out of a male fish into the same container to fertilize the eggs. Normally the eggs are then rinsed with an iodine solution to prevent disease and allowed to set for 30 minutes to “harden” before they are transported to the Durango fish hatchery.  But, because this was not an actual harvest, the eggs were tossed back into the lake where some settle into rocks where they may hatch, but most will likely be eaten by fish.

“When you get somebody that’s naturally passionate about fish, like Chris (Valesey), and you cultivate that passion and bring them into an opportunity like this, they do extremely well,” said Aquaculture Director Ben Webster who was managing River Bend Trout Farm north of Monte Vista before he started working with the aquaculture program at Trinidad State. “My best students are the ones like Chris that just love fish and love fishing,” he said.

Valesey came to the program with a wealth of fish information already swimming in his head. “My wife is old family friends with him (Webster),” said Valesey, “so I knew he was teaching the fishing program. I told him about this really cool fish I caught.” Valesey searched his cell phone for the picture of the four-pound largemouth bass he pulled out of Homelake. He talked about the bait he used, the structures of the fish and how he got the fish out of the water. Impressed with his enthusiasm and his knowledge, Webster asked, “Why aren’t you doing it for a living? It’s all about the fish you love to go chase.”

At the time, Chris was taking the anatomy and physiology class at Trinidad State in preparation for the nursing program along with his wife Dashanda. But after careful consideration, Chris switched his loyalty to fish. “Pursuit follows passion,” said Valesey.

Dashanda said he is very enthusiastic, and he spends a lot of time working on the fish tank he bought her several years ago. “He’s always fixing it, changing the fish diet or adding new fish. He’s always talking about fish and somehow every conversation turns in to something about fish! It’s fun to see him excited even if a lot of what he shares is over my head,” said Dashanda. 

Reciting an impressive variety of fish in his aquarium, Valesey explained that the fish and plants are a lot healthier since he started taking the class.

A Marine Corps vet who is using the GI Bill for his education, Valesey, 31, also took the EMT program at the college. After graduation, he plans to work as an EMT while looking for hatchery work.

Like Valesey, Alexandria Haslett had begun the nursing program at Trinidad State. Because her dad, Nathan Haslett, took the nursing program there and enjoyed it so much, Alexandria thought she might enjoy it too — especially since she and her dad are so much alike. But after two semesters of taking prerequisites, she decided nursing was not for her. A year later while working a part-time job, she was scrolling through the Trinidad State website and discovered the Aquaculture Program.  She didn’t know such a thing existed. Her favorite movie as a child was “Finding Nemo.” When her parents would go to Walmart, she would head for the fish tanks. She even did that at pet stores. She could watch fish for hours. 

A 2016 Alamosa High School graduate, Haslett is the only female in the aquaculture program this semester. The spawning experience on Lake Nighthorse was an adventure for her. She said, “Oh man, it was incredible. It was calming to be out there on the water. It was super cool to get a taste of what we’ll be doing after we finish this training. I enjoy being outside when it’s about fish. I held a fish for the first time in years when we were on the lake. It felt great.” 

“It’s a really fun course. We get to go out to fish hatcheries,” said Haslett who enjoys the hands-on approach. “It’s all coming together.”

Webster is confident the program will continue to grow. “We are so unique in the scope of what we do. We’re unlike any other program in the United States. This program is designed specifically for fish culture which makes us one of a kind,” said Webster. “There is a great deal of hands-on experience. I also teach Farm and Ranch Management and Ag Business so we hone in on the business side too. We have an aquaponics (plants grown in water) curriculum that has been accepted at the state level and will be full throttle this coming fall. We’re offering a horticulture class this spring and will be offering greenhouse management as well.”

To learn more about the aquaculture and aquaponics programs, call Ben Webster at (719) 589-7049.

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