As March gets underway, the Salmon Center is wrapping up our Salmon in the Classroom program for the year and preparing for an early-spring fry/parr release. The program, which was featured in the Kitsap Sun earlier this year, is the result of a partnership between the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, local schools, and organizations like the Salmon Center.
For over 20 years, the Salmon Center has collaborated with elementary schools in Mason County to provide third and fourth graders the opportunity to engage with concepts of biology, ecology, and environmental science in a familiar context: by learning more about the salmon that are familiar features of their local environment.
This year, our responsibilities for the program grew – in addition to the two Belfair schools (Belfair and Sand Hill) that we have worked with in the past, the Salmon Center also began supervising four Shelton schools (Pioneer, Evergreen, Bordeaux, and Mountain View) as well. Tripling the reach we have with this program has allowed us to engage a greater number of young people while also ensuring that more salmon are raised in safe, monitored environments until they reach the fry stage. 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 is done through two main program components: in-class presentations and hands-on experience. Our two Americorps interns deliver three lessons to each class about the salmon life cycle, habitat, and water quality. At the same time, teachers and students work together to maintain an aquarium stocked with eggs from the McKernan Salmon Hatchery. They are responsible for monitoring water temperature, oxygen levels, and pH as well as feeding the salmon once they become fry. 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 a total of 1,000 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 2016, the Salmon Center’s Summer Chum program counted over 3,000 chum returning to the Union River, doubling the previous year’s total of around 1,500. This return ranked as an eleven-year high, and will ideally continue to rise in subsequent years – as long as future generations learn to prioritize environmental stewardship.