SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah -- Inmates at the Salt Lake County Jail are going fishing—but not the kind of fishing you might think.
The inmates are getting a great opportunity to do a little fish farming as part of a collaborative effort between the jail, the University of Utah and the Department of Wildlife Resources that could benefit the entire state.
Roughly 5,000 young, farm-cultured minnows got their first taste of freedom Friday as they were released into a new pond at, of all places, the Salt Lake County Metro Jail. The project is a concerted effort to repopulate the state's dwindling number of a species of fish found only in the state of Utah.
“What we’re doing here is taking efforts to reinvigorate the numbers of the species of fish called the Utah least chub, which is native here in Utah and is, frankly threatened,” said Capt. Matt Dumont of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
The purpose of the new pond is two-fold. Not only does the least chub get a chance to replenish its population, the pond is also a teaching tool for the inmates--who are learning new concepts and skills in science and nature sustainability.
“We have scientists come in and expose the prisoner population to science education,” Dumont said.
The U of U’s involvement was spearheaded by Nalini Nadkarni, who is the director of the school’s inspire program. She said the seemingly odd partnership is good for everyone.
“It’s a program that allows a two-way connection between an institution that holds knowledge of a certain kind and an institution that holds people of a certain kind, but allows that exchange to be mutually beneficial,” she said.
More than two dozen inmates have been assigned to the project so far. Josh Beeny has been incarcerated for six months and was thrilled to learn he would be on fish detail.
“I was excited,” he said. “I was like, ‘Let’s do this. I can’t wait to get out there.' It’s going to be something new. I’ve never done anything like this, so I figured it would be a great opportunity.”
Due to habitat changes and increased numbers of non-native fish, the least chub numbers have dwindled to only six natural wild populations. However, instead of being labeled an endangered species, efforts like the jail pond have kept the fish off the list.
The young fish will mature and begin to reproduce in just a year. And although they only reach about 2.5-inches in length, the species is critical to controlling the state’s mosquito population. Inmates like Beeny are happy to be doing their part.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s awesome to be able to be helping out the environment, help [a] species like the least chub, so I’m pretty excited about it.”
Now there is also a beautiful garden on the property where inmates have been learning about agriculture and landscape, so this program is an extension of that and really just the beginning. Jail officials said they plan on adding several more similar projects to the jail grounds in the near future.