Students learn first-hand about ocean food chain

If there's one thing fourth graders can count on each year, it's that they will see a dead animal inside and out.

Teacher Brian Merritt uses various animals to teach about science, whether biology, environment or, in the case of this year, the food chain.

On April 18, Merritt brought his class outside to show them the food chain of the animal kingdom in action, if only slightly after the fact.


"That's huge!"


The students reacted with astonishment at the unveiling of the enormous fish.

That morning, the teacher and commercial fisherman, got a lingcod from fellow fisherman Brennan Eagle. The lingcod had swallowed a rockfish.

Eagle was fishing with gray cod bait. A rockfish gulped up the bait, only to be itself gulped up by a larger predator.

"About 24 hours ago, this fish was about 15 miles offshore out toward Craig, swimming around," Merritt told his class before eviscerating the lingcod. "Brennan caught it, brought it in about midnight, now it's here. This fish has had quite a journey."

Before surgery began, children were asked what they knew about the lingcod species.

"It's known for its spots all over its body," said Malachi Harrison, 9, who focused raptly on the lesson.

"That's a real common coloration here," Merritt responded to Malachi's observation. "This is a very aggressive predator on the bottom. They're very opportunistic and they'll eat just about anything that they can get in their mouth."

The lingcod will eat other fish, crab, shrimp and "any kind of bait you put on the bottom," he taught the class. Despite having a mouthful of sharp teeth, the predator swallowed the rockfish without chewing it.

Kids were instructed to get their iPads ready to start taking photos. Later in the day, they would use the photos in combination with a writing assignment to show what they had learned that morning.

Merritt sliced into the fish, reminding the students that he had to be mindful of the hook in the rockfish's mouth and the spikes on its back, emphasizing safety throughout the lesson. Opening the fish up, he pointed out that the lingcod was a female, showing the class the egg sack.

"There are, I don't know, 5,000 or 10,000 lingcod eggs there, but I'm trying to get to the stomach," he said. The anatomy lesson continued as he worked, pointing out that the fish was really fresh, which could be seen by the clear, blue color of its eyes. Merritt said the foggier the eyes, the less fresh the fish is.

Within moments, the head of the rockfish, hook and all, was exposed as he pulled it from the belly of the beast.

"This rockfish, if you notice, (hardly has) any wounds to the outside of the body," he said. "When the lingcod grabbed it, it just swallowed it whole and alive, by the way. Then this thing died down in its stomach. Lingcod don't chew their food the way we do. They don't chew it 32 times like you're supposed to."

The lesson then turned from biology to math, with Merritt asking his students to take a guess at the length of the bigger fish.

"Twenty-four inches," called out the first student. Others followed with 25, 18, 64, a yard, and finally, "Forty-five!"

Merritt pulled out a yardstick, which was shorter than the fish. He took two separate measurements, asked a student to do the math, and the total came to 45 inches. It weighed between 40 and 50 pounds, he said, with an additional three or four pounds added with the rockfish.

"They can hold a lot in their stomach," he told the children. "They are the pigs of the sea."

As the flesh of the fish was filleted for future use as bait, Merritt wrapped up the lesson. Kids were invited to touch the carcass, which many of the boys were happy to do.

Malachi, who plans to be a doctor like his father, said he learned a lot about the various parts of a fish.

"I think it's actually a good learning experience and pretty cool," he said. "Mr. Merritt has been doing a lot of fun and humorous things for us over this school year."

The lesson was a continuation of life in Southeast for Cyrus Yoder, 10, who thought it was fun.

"I love fishing with my dad and doing outdoor stuff," he said. "I think this was an awesome time to have fun with my classmates and learn more. ... I knew they ate their food whole, but not alive. ... Mr. Merritt's a great teacher."


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