Donation helps repopulate Kean High's tilapia farm


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ST. THOMAS - While the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School's tilapia fish farm has not fully recovered from the mysterious poisoning of 800 of its fish in October last year, the program is making a comeback.

On Tuesday, the University of the Virgin Islands' agricultural division on St. Croix donated 100 fish to the St. Thomas high school, adding to the 125 fish that it already had.

The 125 fish had been in a separate tank that did not share the same water at the time of the Oct. 11 poisoning.

The new fish, brought over in plastic bags filled with oxygenated water, ventured over on an 18-minute private jet plane ride Tuesday with St. Croix funeral home owner Gerard James. For James, it was deja vu, because he also brought the school its very first batch of fish nearly two years ago.

"I brought about 35. They were much larger, about the size of my hand," James said.

Those 35 fish were just the beginning of what became the largest high school aquaponics program in the nation. Aquaponics is essentially the production of plants using the waste water and organic matter derived from raising aquatic animals, including fish. No soil is needed for the plants because of the nutrients already in the water.

"Often people just know us as the place that has tilapia, but we have much more than that," said Kirk Lewis, the instructor who founded the program.

The students, when they take the classes, learn to care for the fish, and then use the fish waste water to grow plants - including bell peppers, lettuce, watermelon and cucumbers.

The students also learn how to price and market their products to the community, and the proceeds go back to the school.

"It's the idea of kids getting to learn beyond the classroom," Lewis said.

However, all of that was threatened Oct. 11.

When students and staff arrived at the fish farm that morning, the nets over the fish tanks had been ripped off, most of the fish were floating lifelessly in the water, and several of the fish had either jumped out of the tanks or had been thrown out, leading school officials and V.I. police to believe that it was a deliberate act.

"I believe the case still remains under investigation," V.I. Police spokeswoman Melody Rames told The Daily News on Tuesday.

It still is unclear what substance killed the fish, and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources found no trace of toxins in the water sample that they received from the school.

Another water sample is expected to be tested in the states next week, Lewis said, but it is not yet known when the lab will return results.

In the meantime, the new fish, which are still quite young, are expected to mature by May, in time for the school to have a seasonal sale.

Classes, also, are back in session at the fish farm since Lewis is back from a surgery that disabled him from taking care of the farm, and the tanks have all been cleaned. The school also put into place several security measures, including a barbed wire perimeter, an alarm system and security cameras.

"We can turn this around," Lewis said, noting that he sees the program expanding and once again becoming an integral part of the community.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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