Poison kills Kean High's tilapia fish
Published: October 10, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Some of them were floating at the water's surface, others had sunk below, a few leapt out onto the ground, but all of them were dead.
Students and staff at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School were horrified Wednesday afternoon to find that someone poisoned nearly 800 live tilapia fish that were part of the school's nationally acclaimed fish farm.
"We were just getting ready for our harvest," said Kirk Lewis, the science teacher who started the program about one-and-a-half years ago.
Just one day previously, Lewis was staring at blue tanks full of plump, silver-scaled fish circling around in fresh water. On Wednesday, he was standing over two barrels filled with nearly 700 pounds of dead fish covered in flies.
"If it had just been one or two, but it was all of them," Lewis said.
Lewis said he was certain that someone had poisoned the fish.
He was not yet sure of the toxin, but it could not have been a coincidence, he said, and he figured it happened at some time Tuesday night.
"They were fine yesterday," Lewis said.
No one reported seeing anything odd Tuesday evening, and the school's principal, Sharon McCollum, had been there until about 9 p.m.
She also thinks that someone snuck into the tilapia farm through its back fence, where there is a gap between the fence and the ceiling. Where the gap was, there now is barbed wire.
"I am sick," McCollum said. "This isn't a prank gone bad."
McCollum said that a police report has been filed, and school officials are reviewing surveillance video from the campus.
"I'm really down-spirited. Melancholy, disenchanted right now," she said.
Lewis said he felt the same way, as he flushed the water from all of the tanks Wednesday, except for the one that had been under repairs. That tank was untouched and just happened to have 90 baby tilapia fish in it. Those baby fish will be the key to bringing back the program to its same liveliness.
However, the other tanks were contaminated, as all of them shared the same water. Two of the tanks had damaged nets, with one net completely removed, which allowed some of the fish to jump out of the tanks. The other net was ripped apart.
"They were doing really good," Lewis said, shaking his head. "It's going to be several months to get back to where we were. Next summer, next year."
The V.I. Police Department is investigating the incident, and water samples will be analyzed in an effort to determine what substance was put in the water that poisoned the fish.
Acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory issued a statement Wednesday calling the fish-poisoning "horrible."
"I am making it clear now that heinous acts such as these must not be condoned, and I am also reaching out to everyone in our community. We need your support to make sure incidents like these never happen again," she said. "I am also putting my full trust in our law enforcement officials as they work to catch whoever is responsible for this horrible act."
No one could even guess as to why anyone would want to harm the fish, or the program. The program has received kudos from the governor, who issued a statement about the fish-poisoning Wednesday, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was featured on first lady Michelle Obama's blog, and also caught the attention of local culinary enthusiasts, a few of whom have visited the program and taught students how to cook their product.
"We're the only school in the nation as far as I know that is doing this," McCollum said.
The program, which typically has two classes of 20 to 25 participants each semester, encourages students to learn a variety of hands-on skills at the farm, which is essentially a small tented area on campus where the tanks are kept. The students learn how to care for the fish and how to use the wastewater to water plants - including mint, chives and lettuce - also grown hydroponically under the tent using water, and very little, if any, soil.
When the fish are ready to harvest every few months, the students then are taught how to market and sell them.
The students usually make about $300 from each tilapia sale and put the money back toward the program, which Lewis was hoping to expand this year.
"I'm not giving up on this," Lewis said. The Education Department invested about $25,000 to start the project, he said.
The program already is paying back the community in that it is showing students new skills, and is piquing the interest of students who otherwise have been less than interested in school in the past.
Clemon Lewis, 16, who has at times struggled to stay engaged at school, has taken to the teachings more than anyone.
Clemon, now a third-year student, still remembers as a ninth-grader coming to the school and watching crews bringing in dirt, then building a structure, then bringing in tanks.
"I went over one day and asked Mr. Lewis what they were doing. He said 'aquaponics,'" Lewis said, referring to a food production system that relies on the raising of fish or other water animals and then using the water and waste of those animals to raise plants. "I went home, and then every day I just watched YouTube videos about aquaponics."
Clemon, who said he wants to pursue aquaponics as a career after high school, has been smitten with the class ever since and has taken over much of the management of the tent since his teacher has been on sick leave. Clemon maintained the tilapia farm during the summer break and has continued this semester.
"If I could, I would stay in this class all day," Clemon said.
On Wednesday, Kirk Lewis and Clemon Lewis, who are not related, carried on and prepared to fill the tanks again as people came and went, inquiring about the fish and expressing their disbelief. They will have to replant their greens because they do not want to also contaminate the vegetables and herbs that they are growing.
As they cleaned out the tanks, a few stray fish still remained in the tanks, a few that were small and had tried escaping out the water pumps. One by one they picked them up and threw them into the barrels.
"I am in disbelief," McCollum said. "It's going to come back stronger and bigger than it has been."
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email email@example.com.