World-first clownfish nursery at QLD school hopes to save Nemo

Originally published in the August 2016 issue of Australian Teacher Magazine

There’s Myrtle the turtle in one corner, Mr Moofy the cowfish in another, and – darting through the coral in between– are scores and scores of clownfish. But watching from behind the glass of the room’s 20 aquarium tanks is another school – the students of Belgian Gardens State.

Each morning, children gather in the ‘Reef BG room’ of the Townsville school to watch the aquatic inhabitants start their day. Later on, they might have classes on maths, science, even commerce by the glow of the tanks.

Thanks to this specially designed nursery, Belgian Gardens is the only primary school in the world to breed clownfish. Partnering with local pet shops and state aquarium, Reef HQ, the school has successfully raised hundreds of fish since it started the program more than a decade ago.

Science teacher Brett Murphy went to James Cook University to learn how to breed the fish after clowns in the school’s library tank began laying eggs.

“They would hatch and get eaten by the parents or other fish or sucked up the filter so the kids were saying ‘What can we do? What can we do?’” he says.

At the same time, growing demand for clownfish following the release of the hit film Finding Nemo was beginning to impact on wild populations.

“I don’t think they’re classified as endangered yet but they’re not far off,” Murphy says. “And in Australia some people breed, but it’s not a big business…they still tend to catch a lot.”

To help keep wild populations from the same fate as Nemo, the school sells clownfish to local pet shops in return for equipment and food. It’s become so successful, the school even won a grant to build the custom-designed Reef BG room in 2013.

These days, the nursery is well looked after by a team of 103 student volunteers.

“There’s only about 15 kids in all of Year 5 and 6 not doing it,” Murphy says. “And I turned it into an extension group for science and maths so the kids do the same process as what they do out at the uni, or at big aquariums. They grow the live food…and they calculate the density of the live food, then they have to calculate how many litres of that have to be put in be sufficient to feed.”

Now attracting more and more “science families”, the school also has a “fish vet” mum on call and a dad who works at the Australian Institute of Marine Science happy to lend a hand.

In fact, Reef BG has fast become one of the school’s main social hubs. Families come in before school and Murphy finds many of the students who have “trouble fitting in” enjoy sitting with the fish.

“You get your regulars,” Murphy says. “Some like to watch the big kids do their jobs.”

A steady stream of David Attenborough documentaries also keep guests entertained round the clock.

With the Great Barrier Reef “right on [their] doorstep”, the school was one of the first Reef Guardian schools in Australia and has long integrated conservation into its curriculum. Now, Murphy says the success of the breeding program is “empowering” students.

“The [kids] in high school still talk about it and some of them are doing marine biology…I’ve had about 40 kids tell me they want to be a scientist.”

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