July 13, 2010

Raising Salmon

Last spring I invited my husband to my classroom. He loves kids and he was a (mostly) willing volunteer. He came in and the first thing the kids showed him was our frogs. We had been raising frogs from teeny tiny tadpoles since early in the school year. Our class had grown quite proud of our little babies and all visitors had to be introduced. My husband loves the outdoors, is very environmentally conscious and loves to see these things in action in the classroom. He thought it was absolutely fantastic that we had done this project.

Over the summer, my husband asked what our class would be raising next year. I should explain that frogs were a HUGE feat for me. I had not given a thought to raising anything else and had been content to revel in my success of the previous year. But here he was, so excited about helping me create environmentally conscious, outdoors loving, scientifically minded students. How could I let him down? He was right, we should raise something else. After some intense internet research, I had the answer....SALMON! Salmon seemed so perfect in so many ways. The curriculum we could tie in! Native Americans, Oregon, life cycles, ecosystems, pollution, nutrition, and on and on.

Well, raising salmon was one of the most DIFFICULT things I have yet to do in the classroom. First step was contacting the liaison for the Fish and Wildlife Department. The program had started with about 10 schools. It had grown to over 100. The man who started the program was still with it...and he was the only man. He was incredibly overworked and could barely keep up with the demand. On-site support was not going to be an option. The biologist visits the website described would not be occurring. If we decided to continue, he would get us the eggs but we would be completely on our own after that.

Next step was the tank preparation. The tank had to be hooked up to a refrigerator to circulate the water in order to maintain ideal temps. This involved some very careful drilling plus the sacrifice of a parent's garage beer fridge. The water had to be filtered for appropriate levels of ammonia. The tank had to be wholly covered in styrofoam to maintain the correct temperature and also to keep out light. A net basket had to be created to gently hold the eggs as well as gravel spread along the bottom.

Once the tank was ready, we were set to go pick up the eggs. This consisted of a hour long drive out to a small, unlikely looking barn where our cranky, overworked fish liaison was dispersing salmon eggs. The eggs had to be brought immediately to the prepared tank, kept moist, and not exposed to air. Of course, I sent my husband to go get them.
The students and I anxiously awaited his return with our new creatures. At last, right before the end of the day, my husband arrived, delightfully holding a container full of 500 salmon eggs. Together with the students, we gently lowered our delicate eggs into our perfectly controlled salmon ecosystem.

Salmon raising commenced. The eggs needed to be checked everyday. If the water was too warm, they would hatch early, too cold and they would never hatch at all. The students, my husband, one dedicated parent volunteer and I fussed over the tank continually. Finally, hatching time came. Little tiny slivers of salmon were appearing. Salmon weren't the only thing emerging from the eggs. An abhorrent foamy, sick smelling meringue-like foam began oozing out of the eggs with the salmon. Not to be alarmed, we were assured, it's just embryonic fluid. The embryonic fluid continued to ooze for days. The students diligently used rulers to scrape the foam off the remaining eggs, top, sides and surrounding floor of the tank. Never complaining, just doing what they needed to do to ensure our salmon were healthy and happy. After a week or so, hatching was over. Apparently my students had a knack for nurturing. Estimated egg loss is over 50% of the 500 eggs given out. We had an almost 80% hatch.

Once hatched, salmon can only remain in the tank for about a week. They are not fed but live off an egg sac attached to their bellies. We observed our strange looking little fish in wonder for the small time we got to keep them. We learned everything about them we could. The students and I had many discussions about what our salmons' journey to the ocean would be like. Would all of them make it? My students knew the answer was no. But some of them would. And the ones that did would make 500 more eggs and a few of those would make it and they would make 500 more eggs and so on. My students came to the conclusion that someday their own children might someday raise salmon that were long distant relatives of the very ones they had raised. It was at this point I realized what an impact the project had had.

Release day dawned, sunny and chilly. We had chosen a release spot up in the Columbia Gorge where the Sandy and Columbia Rivers meet. But first, we had to catch the little guys. How long does it take to catch about 400 salmon and distribute them in jars to anxiously awaiting students? A long, long time...You can guess who I put in charge of that job. Ultimately they were all caught and we were off to the release site. My students stood at the edge of the river, very reluctant to let their charges go. They sang songs to them, chanted poems we had learned about salmon, named each and every one and were eventually persuaded to gently liberate their little babies. My husband was there, of course, watching proudly.
Was it all worth it? Absolutely.

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