Student Producers, Biologists and Fish

On Sunday, November 14th, Sabrina Drill and Camm Swift took a group of high school students from the Los Angeles Leadership Academy on a field trip to to discover the variety of fish species found in the Los Angeles River. Departures producers Matt Williams and Justin Cram tagged along.

By Justin Cram

We met Camm Swift and Sabrina Drill at the L.A. River bike path in Elysian Valley off of Oros Avenue, where the river bottom shifts from a "soft bottom" to concrete. Swift showed up wearing rubber boots, waders and a wicker hat, an orange Home Depot bucket in one hand and several nets bunched up in the other. As his gear indicated, Swift was a man on an aquatic mission: As soon as he arrived he immediately set his gear down, and walked straight into the river, his head down as he surveyed the water for fish. Drill, just a few months pregnant and leaving not a chance for slipping in the river, remained on shore to talk with the students.

Unfurling poles and nets, Swift warned us that we would have to really dig into banks to find the fish he wanted to share with us. Even though he was wearing sneakers instead of the waterproof boots, Departures' own Matt Williams waded into the river after Swift without hesitation. Departures Producers have sacrificed many a Converse to this project: Much of the river water is treated sewage flushed from our toilets, and although it is thoroughly processed by treatment plants along the river it - some of us end up drinking this water - when encountered out in the field it can leave a distinct, L.A. River smell.

Swift and Williams stretched out a net and set to pulling fish out of the water. The first couple of tries they pulled the net out and found nothing but rocks, but moving further into the river a variety of fish species began filling the nets. The students - safe on the shore - filmed while Drill explained how fish species have both functioned and flourished in the L.A. River. The addition of cement to the bottom as a part of canalization has increased water temperatures, creating a warmer ecosystem that is unfriendly to the original native species - Steelhead Trout and Arroyo Suckerfish - but that is also capable of maintaining tropical species such as Sunfish or Amazon Catfish.

As the day progressed, students with camera equipment began venturing into the banks where Swift and Williams were still collecting, pushing back brush and logs to get the edge of the water. The students became more than just observers, immersing themselves in the life of the river through investigation and discussion with biologists Swift and Drill. Watching them, we couldn't help but feel proud: Their camera placements and movements were deliberate, and their questions were well thought out and articulated. The students in the Departures' Youth Voices program students were evolving into producers!

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