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DC's public aquarium now offers fishy birthday parties

Storytime with kindergarteners at the Aquatic Resources Education Center, DC's free aquarium

Fishing at the Aquatic Resources Education Center

There are a lot of people who think nothing is alive in the Anacostia, so it is fun to surprise visitors at the Aquatic Resources Education Center in southeast D.C. with facts about the river and its inhabitants, says Teresa Rodriguez. Walking by shiny new tanks full of crabs, toads, diamondback terrapins, and native fish like the mummichog, Rodriguez, chief of the wildlife management branch of the fisheries and wildlife division of the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), is excited that soon she and her staff will be able to offer children in the neighborhood a free place to have an educational birthday party.

“Our challenge is to get the community to be aware we are here,” she adds.

A lot of people mistake the low, dark, cinder-block building in Anacostia Park for office space, or think that maybe it is part of the skating rink next door. The center was often closed during the last year while it underwent a $20,000 renovation to upgrade its tanks, too. Now that it is open for business again, many more people have been coming to the center—essentially a publicly funded aquarium—to learn about animals of the river’s banks and within its waters.

One recent morning, a group of wiggly, excited kindergartners from the Oyster Adams School visited to learn about spring metamorphosis. As Rodriguez held up some tadpoles to explain what the equally wiggly creatures in the glass container ate for breakfast that morning, a little girl in the front of the room looked up wide-eyed to ask: “How do you know what to feed him if he doesn’t talk?” 

Besides free programs for students from preschool through grade 12, the center holds training sessions for teachers and gives boat trips on the Anacostia, and leads a massive release of shad each spring as part of a larger effort to restock the Chesapeake with an important native fish species. This spring the center also hosted several scout groups seeking badges.

“A lot of young parents want to take their kids fishing but they’ve never learned themselves,” Rodriguez says. “Maybe they went once with their grandfather. But they really want to have the experience of being out on the water with their kids and they don’t know how to do it.” 

There are pollution problems in this mighty, often-mistreated river, something that those at the aquatic resources center also address in their work with the public. There are invasive species which people sometimes release, such as snakeheads, and problem species such as goldfish, too. But by getting people out to meet its wildlife and see the river’s habitat potential, the staff hopes to inspire conservation of the entire watershed.

While renovations continue, the center’s hours are somewhat limited so visitors are advised to call ahead. But by July the center should be open during the week from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. and will be available for educational birthday parties on the weekends by reservation.

As far as Bryan King, Rodriguez’s boss and chief of fisheries and wildlife division of the District's department of the environment can tell, there isn’t any other place in the immediate area that offers such programs for free. A lot of other museums and nature centers are much more crowded and costs hundreds of dollars to rent. His agency works in cooperation with the National Park Service to oversee the education center, and he is excited by the idea of giving groups a place to celebrate among the fish.

“We want to target that east-of-the-river community that has typically been underserved and provide the kids in those communities with a space to have an educational experience,” he says. 

Read more articles by Alison Gillespie.

Alison Gillespie writes about urban environmental issues for a variety of publications nationwide.  She is also the author of Hives in the City, a nonfiction book about beekeepers working to keep bees alive in the cities of the Mid-Atlantic US.
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