Salmon Stewards: Seasons of Growth

Fish are like trees! ” exclaimed Melody, a 3rd grader who is now also an enthusiastic Salmon Steward at Carus Elementary. She’s referring to the unexpected discovery she made when peering into the microscope: The scales of a fish resemble the growth rings of a tree.

Chinook salmon fry reared by Firwood Elementary are ready to be released into the Clackamas River. Photo credit: Morgan Parks/NWF Staff

Just as each line represents a record of change for both a salmon and a Douglas fir, so too has this past school year been a season of growth for students at five rural schools near Portland, Oregon. These budding Salmon Stewards began the program knowing very little about one of the state’s most significant keystone species and in just one year, they transformed into young scientists, full of knowledge.

Egg. Alevin. Fry. That’s the lifecycle and formula for Fish Eggs to Fry, a program led by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife which brings salmon and trout eggs to classroom aquariums—and the students who host them—across the state. As the eggs hatch and the fish grow, the classroom is transformed into an observation and learning laboratory. Then 8 weeks later, it’s time to free the fry! From there, they will flow from classroom aquariums into downstream currents of local waterways. Watch the Rearing Salmon and Eco-School Stewards video for a glimpse of this inspiring journey!

 

Over a hundred schools in the Portland-metro region receive classroom assistance from the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. As the Oregon affiliate partner of National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the Steelheaders’ engagement in Fish Eggs to Fry and its emphasis on fostering the next generation of environmental stewards perfectly aligns with NWF’s proven Eco-Schools USA program, now in its milestone 10th year.

A third grader examines a fish scale under a microscope. Photo credit: Carus Elementary

This past year, with support from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde through their Spirit Mountain Community Fund (SMCF), NWF hosted teacher trainings, provided curriculum resources to help meet Next Generation Science Standards, and awarded schools mini seed grants to purchase necessary equipment. As part of the Eco-Schools Watersheds, Oceans, and Wetlands (WOW) pathway of learning, each school engaged in water quality monitoring, stewardship actions, classroom presentations, and outdoor field experiences as part of their Fish Eggs to Fry activities. By partnering with SMCF staff and the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, a culture-centered STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) activity brought tribal history blended with salmon and lamprey learning to each school.

As Melody discovered, scales tell the tales of a fish’s entire life and boy, do they have stories to share – from swimming as fry in freshwater gravel and transitioning into smolts to finally spending years in the ocean as adults. Just as the tribe’s fisheries biologists examine fish scales under a microscope, so too did the students – only instead of determining species and age (hard to do for even an expert) they looked for insight to create their own salmon scale for a class collage.

As the second largest waterfall by volume in the U.S. behind Niagara, Willamette Falls is an ancestral place where indigenous peoples have historically gathered for thousands of years to trade and fish for salmon, steelhead, and lamprey. The age-old tradition of harvesting salmon and lamprey at the mighty Willamette Falls continues today. However, lamprey are encountering the same challenges that salmon face: their dwindling populations are a direct result of habitat loss and passage barriers like dams. It is for these reasons and more that National Wildlife Federation is committed to teaching kids of all ages and backgrounds about the cultural relevance and importance of both salmon and lamprey. Weaving tribal history with educational coloring books and a fun fortune teller was a great way to introduce NWF’s Salmon Stewards to both. When children connect to nature, a flame is lit, and when burned bright enough, can lead to a lifelong interest in conservation and stewardship.

The strength of our local partnerships is something Spirit Mountain Community Fund takes pride in,” said Executive Director Mychal Cherry. “We’re so thankful for the opportunity to deepen our partnership with the National Wildlife Federation by collaborating with them on their educational Eco-Schools Fish Eggs to Fry program. Sharing our tribal history and the cultural significance of salmon and lamprey with students in the program has been a new highpoint for us.”

2nd graders at Ninety-One School proudly display their salmon scale class collage while sporting fish print t-shirts. Credit: Morgan Parks

“My wish for you little fish is for you to spawn,” wrote Conrad as a farewell to the fry. Inspired by the rich celebratory traditions of indigenous peoples, students at Carus Elementary opted to have their own blessing ceremony to honor their fish before freeing them. Each Salmon Steward wrote a wish for a fish and for the Willamette River, the fry’s release site, and burned them in a fire pit. The flames were then doused with water from their own aquarium where the salmon had grown. From wishes to “fryed” ashes, a complete circle … and plenty of hope sent into the universe for these tiny fry raised with love.

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