Fifth-grade students raise salmon fry for Maxwelton watershed

Brayden Jonsson and classmates release tiny coho into the Maxwelton watershed Friday. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Brayden Jonsson and classmates release tiny coho into the Maxwelton watershed Friday.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Like proud parents on graduation day, about 100 South Whidbey fifth graders said their goodbyes to hundreds of salmon fry Friday. Justin Burnett / The Record | Aiden O’Brien and Cooper Ullmann, both 11, test water quality samples from the salmon tank at South Whidbey Elementary School Thursday morning. Hundreds of the fry were released into the Maxwelton watershed Friday morning.

Four classes from South Whidbey Elementary School spent the morning releasing the tiny coho into the Maxwelton watershed and on to destinies unknown. Few tears were spilt over the parting, however, as the release was long planned and was the conclusion of a four-month project that left students with an in-depth understanding of a salmon’s life cycle and the pride of having contributed to the larger restoration efforts going on throughout Western Washington.

The Salmon in the Classroom project was facilitated as a partnership between the school district and Whidbey Watershed Stewards — a South Whidbey-based organization with a three-part mission: to promote watershed stewardship, habitat enhancement, and environmental education for all ages. Funding was supplied with a $1,000 grant from the South Whidbey Schools Foundation, which covered the cost of equipment and supplies.

Beginning in January, the project took students to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wallace River Hatchery in Sultan, where they got a tour of the facility and returned home with a clutch of 250 coho eggs.

“They looked like little round marbles; they were squishy and you could see their eyes,” said Aiden O’Brien, 11.

The classes spent the next few months watching them progress from eggs to inch-long fry.

It was really cool to watch certain stages of their development, such as the “buttoned up” phase where the fry have hatched and are swimming around but are still sustained by yolk sacs on their bellies, said Leanne Robbins, 10.

But students did more than simply observe; math and science were regular parts of the curriculum, said John LaVassar, a fifth-grade teacher at South Whidbey Elementary School. Along with taking, recording and calculating daily water temperatures, students also performed weekly water quality analyses to monitor pH balances — how acidic the water is — and nitrate levels.

Justin Burnett / The Record | South Whidbey Elementary School fifth graders release coho salmon fry into the Maxwelton watershed Friday. The students raised about 250 of the fish in the Salmon in the Classroom project.

“This was a real teaching tool,” LaVassar said. “It’s also really exciting for the kids. It’s better than just talking about it or watching videos.”

The water temperature, which ranged from 38 to 49 degrees, served as a barometer for development, and the water quality tests revealed that while pH levels remained the same, nitrate and ammonia levels rose — the result of a lot of fish in one tank, according to Whidbey Watershed Stewards Education Coordinator Lori O’Brien.

“It’s basically a lot of fertilizer,” said O’Brien, Aiden’s mother and a project manager.

Students were also charged with other simpler maintenance and care duties, specifically feeding the fry four times daily once their yolk sacks were completely absorbed. The menu was appealing enough to the salmon, but apparently not so popular with students.

“It’s little fish food that really stinky,” said Kelly Murnane, 11.

According to O’Brien, the aim of the project was more toward education than making a dent in salmon populations. While it’s hoped the fry will return to spawn in the Maxwelton watershed, survival rates are against them as it’s estimated that only one or two out of 5,000 grow to adulthood.

This project was about teaching a new generation about salmon and the importance behind restoration efforts in Puget Sound, she said.

“They are the future, they are the caretakers,” O’Brien said. “They will figure out ways to sustain and improve our planet.”


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