Over the past few weeks, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group has been busy working with youth and salmon. April marks the end of the annual Salmon in the Classroom program, which saw over 1,100 students across Mason County raising and releasing fall chum fry.
The program teaches local students about salmon, ecology, and water quality by raising salmon in the classroom. This is done through two main program components: in-class presentations and hands-on experience, which requires youth to monitor pH, oxygen, and water temperatures while feeding their fish.
For many years, HCSEG has operated the program in the North Mason School District. With support from the Squaxin Island Tribe and others, HCSEG now serves nearly all public elementary students in the County, impacting more than 1,000 students.
The mission of this program is forward-looking: not only does it attempt to boost the fall chum return for several years down the line, it also seeks to better equip our youngest generation to advocate for a healthy environment for the future. This combination of instructional styles allows students to develop a multifaceted understanding of what it means to care for and about salmon populations in the Hood Canal – and caring about these populations is crucial.
Even though a pair of salmon lay between 500-1200 eggs, only about two of the offspring on average complete their life cycle and return to their home stream to reproduce. This is because natural variables like predators, competition for food, and environmental dangers deal a series of blows to the original population over time. If salmon can produce an average of two successful offspring per pair, this means salmon replace themselves at a rate of 1:1. This is just enough to keep the size of the population stable. But when unnatural variables (pollution, habitat destruction, the presence of invasive species, overfishing, etc.) come into play, this average return is no longer stable since even fewer fish survive. When this ratio disappears, the population experiences a decline. If the decline is sharp enough, the population may not be able to easily recover on its own. This is where conservation efforts come in. By providing more than 1,100 salmon eggs to local schools, we aim to ensure that a greater percentage of salmon make it to the fry stage – and can contribute to a larger return in 3-5 years as a result when the salmon make their way back home.
Conservation efforts like these are proving fruitful. In 2017, HCSEG’s summer chum trapping program counted over 5,800 chum returning to the Union River. This return ranked as one of the largest returns since monitoring began in the 1970s, and will ideally continue to rise in subsequent years – as long as future generations learn to prioritize environmental stewardship.