With nets and enthusiasm, fifth-grade students from Cooper Elementary School snagged some critters for scientific research in Billings Park on Sept. 26. They caught four crayfish in 45 minutes for the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The animals will be dissected and tested for intestinal parasites in an effort to find out why crayfish numbers are low in the estuary.

For three weeks, researchers had traps set up at sites throughout the watershed. Not a single crayfish was caught. So reserve education coordinator Deanna Erickson enlisted the kids.

“I said, ‘You know who can catch crayfish? I think fifth-graders can catch crayfish,’” Erickson said. “And they did.”

Minnesota Sea Grant surveyed crayfish populations in the estuary in the 1990s. At the time, they were focused on the invasive rusty crayfish. Five years ago, reserve researchers duplicated the survey, putting traps in the same spots.

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Joey Dillon, left, pulls out a net for scientist Sara Rybak to inspect as fifth-graders from Cooper Elementary School help look for crayfish at Billings Park on Thursday afternoon. The fifth-graders helped the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve look for crayfish for a study to be done by the EPA.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Joey Dillon, left, pulls out a net for scientist Sara Rybak to inspect as fifth-graders from Cooper Elementary School help look for crayfish at Billings Park on Thursday afternoon. The fifth-graders helped the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve look for crayfish for a study to be done by the EPA. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

“When they had done it in the '90s, they got a really high number of crayfish in their sampling time, about 50,” Erickson said. “We got five.”

For three years in a row, University of Wisconsin-Superior student Kara Tudor performed the same study, getting low numbers of crayfish every year.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” Erickson said.

Tudor, who now works for the Environmental Protection Agency, found intestinal parasites in a number of the crayfish. She was seeking new specimens this year to send to an expert who can identify the parasite. That’s where the students came in. About 60 of them searched the St. Louis River in Billings Park on Sept. 26.

“Sometimes kid skills are really applicable in science,” Erickson said. “They’re not biased by scientific training. Crayfish catching is one of those kid skills that can sometimes be superior.”

Erickson asked Tudor to include the Cooper students in her research paper if she publishes it.

“They get to participate in something that impacts scientific discussion. That’s really cool,” Erickson said. “That’s real.”

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