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TVA biologists teach region's students eco-research at Covered Bridge Park

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jun 18, 2018 at 5:48 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Every year, Tennessee Valley Authority biologists take a look at streams, rivers and lakes to assess the health of each aquatic ecosystem.

On Monday, TVA researchers had some extra help as they assessed the fish and insects living in Doe River at Covered Bridge Park in Elizabethton. 

The activity, according to organizers, was part of the STEM Summer Excel Program, a four-week summer camp based at East Tennessee State University founded with the help of Tri-Cities Segway Tours owner and Greater Love Church Pastor Mike Cummings to increase students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and math in order to cultivate an interest in STEM careers.

This week was “TVA Week.” 

“Most of them have never got a chance to do ‘hands-on, minds-on’ projects,” Cummings said. “I’ve been excited to see them being able to do that for the month they’re at the STEM camp.”

After TVA Fisheries Biologist Jon Michael Mollish taught students more about biological research in a classroom setting Monday morning, the students then joined Mollish and Shannon O’Quinn, a TVA water resource specialist, to take a closer look at the fish in the stream. 

“We sample over 500 streams all across the valley just to keep reports on what’s happening with water quality and stream health. One way that we do that is we look at the fish community and the bugs that live on the bottom of the stream,” O’Quinn said. “If there’s something that’s going on as far as quality goes, we’ll see that in the fish and bugs that live in the stream.

“We’re looking at a lot of different things — the number of fish we catch, the different species of fish we catch, looking to see if they have parasites, looking to see if they’re sick, that type of thing. It gives us a lot of information so that, if there are problems, we can go out and work with agencies and nonprofit organizations to try to protect and improve the water resources.”

To catch the fish, O’Quinn and Mollish went “electrofishing.” Once the team of TVA researchers and students caught the fish, they recorded the data on the health, numbers and diversity of species within the river. 

“The electricity momentarily stuns the fish so we can catch them. After we catch them, we look at the different species and we record it,” O’Quinn said, adding that there are over 30 different species of fish in the area. 

According to Monday’s research, the river’s ecosystem seems to be going strong. 

O’Quinn said students and researchers found several species of fish, including darters, shiners and suckers that were indicators of good water quality, adding that what they saw Monday was in line with the previous sampling ranking the health of the Doe River as “good to excellent.”

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