Getting to the bottom of a fishy question

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By Roger Snodgrass

Where do good ideas for science fair projects come from?

Everybody is different, but for freshman Nathan Clements at Los Alamos High School, the idea crept up on him. Not only that, but like scientists since Galileo, he also had to adapt his idea to reality as he went along.

Clements has participated in the county science fair for the last two years. Each time he's gone on to regional and state competitions and placed at state both times.

He’s been doing quite a bit of fishing around the area lately with his father and one of his older brothers.

He also did a Nature Odyssey with the Pajarito Environmental Education Center a couple of years ago, when he spent a week at Valles Caldera National Preserve, just up the road from Los Alamos.

Not so long ago, his father put in for the lottery to go fly-fishing on the preserve and won a reach on the San Antonio, the main stream that flows through the Valles Caldera

“We’re terrible at fly-fishing,” Nathan Clements said. “We didn’t catch anything.”

So then he was trying to come up with a project idea.

“Originally, I was interested in studying the parasites in the intestinal lining of trout,” he said, “but that didn’t work because fish are vertebrates and the rules won’t allow you to cause anything other than temporary harm to a vertebrate,” he said.

So then he decided to compare fish outside the preserve with fish inside.

He went to Fenton Lake with his father over a couple of days and caught, measured and released about 30 trout. But that idea didn’t work out very well because of bureaucratic complications.

He thought he would need permission from the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, but they didn’t get back to him until the Thursday before the fair began a week ago Friday.

It turned out he didn’t need the permission, but meanwhile he needed a backup plan.

He was wondering whether more or less fishing would have the most effect on a fish population. Some people, he knew, thought angling had a negative affect on the fish because it removed them from their habitat and people might naturally assume that fewer fish meant a less healthy population.

With his experience at the Valles Caldera, he was aware there were two streams, the San Antonio and the East Fork where fishing was carefully regulated. But the San Antonio had been fished since 2003 and the East Fork was only opened for fishing last summer

With the permission of the preserve’s Chief Scientist Bob Parmenter during the fall, Clements went into the field with the biologistst of Aquatic Consultants Inc. Having taken his measurements while they were conducting monitoring studies of brown trout in both streams, he already had data to make those kinds of comparison.

The hypothesis he decided to test was that a stream that is fished would have healthier fish than the fish in an unfished stream, because of decreased competition, but the fish in the unfished stream would be older than in the fished stream because the fishermen would tend to keep larger fish.

The question of brown trout is worth asking, Clements noted, because they play a vital role in the food chain of that environment, according to previous studies, and so any knowledge about how to improve their health would be helpful for the preserve.

There are two main measurements for determining the age of fish. Measuring otoliths, the trout’s fin rays, is one way, but again, requires killing the fish.

The other way is by catching the fish and removing a few scales in which case the fish can be released without harm, but that requires good technique and appropriate adjustment for environmental factors for reading the scale.

After all that, all the changes in plans and the measurements and analysis, Clement found that his hypothesis was wrong on both counts.

But he did learn a few things even so, including that the scale reading was a useful, non-lethal tool for determining the age of trout; and that the management of the Valles Caldera streams did not seem to affect the age or condition of the brown trout populations, which tended on the whole to be fair to excellent.

There were more than 200 participants, mostly younger students, in the Los Alamos Public School science fair at the end of January

And the winner in environmental science for the senior division of the county was – TaDAH! – Nathan Clements.

How not?

“But there were only two people in that category,” he said, further demonstrating an impressive modesty, honesty and sense of proportion for a young scientist who had done a masterful piece of work.