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A Place You’ve Likely Never Heard of and Should Get to Know

It’s called AREC and pronounced “A-REC.” That stands for Aquatic Resources Education Center. Operated by the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) in cooperation with the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it is a center for the study of the District’s rivers and streams. It is located along our Anacostia, on the east side between the Pennsylvania Avenue and East Capitol Street bridges, at the end of the park drive and next to the roller-skating rink.

AREC Discovery Room. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

There are two related sets of activities for the public at AREC – environmental engagement and fisheries research and management. Tommy Wells, director of DOEE, sees AREC as “a little-known place that does so much for the Department. We have a great team of biologists located there who are working hard to restore the natural elements of our rivers – the Anacostia and the Potomac.”

Among other things, the center is our own aquarium on the Anacostia, with over 40 species of local fish, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and aquatic plants displayed in attractive and well-lit tanks. A children’s Discovery Room offers hands-on learning.

The DOEE’s fisheries research and survey programs at AREC include extensive efforts to restore fish populations through management and habitat improvements. Barriers to fish passage and reproduction in DC have been removed and fish ladders installed.

There is a specialized electro-fishing boat to temporarily stun fish so they can be measured, weighed, examined, and tagged. American shad for stocking are raised at AREC.

All this is tied to the efforts of the DOEE and Maryland to improve water quality and habitat so that eventually fish in local waters can be caught and consumed. At this point, there are a number of fish advisories as the rivers and streams are cleaned up, and the focus is on catch-and-release recreational fishing as well as spawning of species that leave for the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean.

Much of the public education program focus is on school groups from pre-K through 12 who visit during the week and learn about a wide range of habitat and animal issues associated with the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek, as well as their tributaries. Many of the older students, perhaps one-third of the total, have a three-part visit with a session in the aquarium, a walk with a park ranger along the river, and a boat trip with the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS).

AREC building. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

Visitors learn that DC waters are home to more than 70 fish species, dozens of which spawn here. The DOEE releases about a million juvenile American shad each year into DC waters, and striped bass tagged in the District have been captured as far north as Maine and as far south as Georgia.

Parents with children two to five years old can attend a “Fish Tales Story Hour” on the first Thursday of every month from 10 to 11 a.m. Upcoming sessions include “Aquatic Birds” on Oct. 5, “Marvelous Mammals” on Nov. 2, and “The Power of Plants” on Dec. 7. Other special events for families include a spring “Family and Youth Casting Call” for budding fishers, which attracts over 500 visitors.

AREC has focused its education programs on youth through the schools and limited its hours for the general public to 10 a.m.-2 p.m., weekdays, or by appointment. Special events sponsored by AREC or by others using the facilities have generally been on weekends.

If staffing levels could be increased, there would be more hours for family visits, especially on weekends. If you have a special need for information, you can request to visit with experts during the week to learn about fisheries surveys, fish habitat improvements, fish surveys, invasive species monitoring, hatcheries, or consumption limitations. As Wells says, “If you want to know more about the impact of invasive species on our surrounding waters like, snakeheads or blue catfish, these are the folks who can tell you all about it.”

Meanwhile you can plan to visit as a participant in special events. Those for youth mentioned above and others are listed along with more information on the AREC website – www.ddoe.dc.gov/arec. Signups and inquiries can be sent to www.doee.arec@dc.gov.

Some of the possibilities that may interest you are:

  • “Frog Watch,” a citizen science program that holds monthly meetings from February through August to carry out protocols, training, and observation of frogs and toads and their habitat. The observations are recorded by participants on evenings and Saturdays.
  • “Bioblitz,” part of a national, citizen-based survey of animals and plants using cellphone apps to record data. The AWS holds one or two sessions a year at AREC to coordinate local efforts.
  • “Watershed Stewards Academy,” an AWS-sponsored program that trains adults in watershed preservation and restoration at AREC on Saturdays in fall and spring.

Groundworks Anacostia and other groups also schedule training sessions and meetings throughout the year. Check the website for these and other meetings and open house events. Use the e-mail address above to sign up for receiving notices.

“In a City known for its national museums and monuments,” says Wells, “it’s great to have an environmental education program dedicated to our local residents and students. It’s a great resource for our schools and families.”

The real issue is how AREC can grow and reach more residents with its programs and sponsorship of other groups’ activities. It seems the school connections are well-designed and successful in reaching students of all ages. But the limited hours for public visits prevent adults and families from coming on weekends and other times to enjoy the displays and learn about the fish and other aquatic life in our rivers and streams.

Perhaps greater involvement with adult education programs could make people aware of the knowledge and experience that await them at AREC. At the same time, the capable and impressive staff in both the education and the fisheries programs are working at full capacity and cannot be expected to take on more.

Check out AREC and I guarantee you will become part of the public asking for more of what you see and experience there!


Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.

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