Just a few paces from the front entrance to Cascadia Elementary School, dozens of baby salmon dart around in a large, bubbling tank. But for a class of 28 second-graders down the hall, a cartoon juvenile steelhead named “Fishy McFishface” is stealing the show.
For the past week, teacher Gary Bass Jr. has used Fishy — an alias for a real fish that’s been fitted with a surgically implanted tracking device — to teach his students about the obstacle-ridden journey from the river to the ocean that most Puget Sound steelhead die trying to complete.
“Should we check in on our fish?” Bass asked just after the morning bell on a recent school day. The students gave a cheer and scurried to the front of the classroom as Bass pulled up a website on a projection screen.
To the left of a map of Puget Sounds waters, a panel showed a leaderboard with 47 other fish, the migration mascots for the nearly 2,000 classrooms, most of them in Washington, that are participating in “Survive the Sound” this year.
Created by salmon-conservation nonprofit Long Live the Kings, Survive the Sound became a supplement to salmon and steelhead curricula somewhat accidentally. Described as a sort of fantasy football for fish, the initiative started during last year’s steelhead migration.
In the general public’s version of the game, individuals or teams can sponsor a steelhead and earn points based on how far the fish travels in 12 days. Once the organization got wind of the rising popularity among teachers and students, it began offering the program to classrooms, along with additional teaching tools, such as discussion questions.
Each of the 48 fish featured in the game has a quirky name, and at each phase of the journey, a captain’s log outlines what the fish could be facing. Fishy McFishface’s name is a nod to “Boaty McBoatface,” the name internet users came up with when a British government agency put the name of a new research vessel to an online vote.
Though Bass has years of experience teaching salmon conservation and clean-water issues to students, “the tech component and digital tools that this program provides are helpful,” he said.
After the students applauded Fishy’s progress up the Skokomish River (an orange fish moves around the map to show the fish’s journey), Bass clicked a link to a page that described the restoration of the river by the Skokomish Tribe.
“The idea is to create a personal investment in the survival of the fish” and their habitat, said Lucas Hall, a project coordinator at Long Live the Kings.
It’s also an effort to raise awareness about the high mortality rates experienced by juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating through Puget Sound. Preliminary research shows contaminated waters and ecological imbalance (caused by humans) could be the cause. Of the 48 fish in last year’s Survive the Sound version, only six made it to the ocean.
“We want people to take a moment to ask themselves if they think that’s acceptable,” said Hall.
The intended empathy seemed to be at work in Bass’ classroom. After checking on Fishy, the students noticed another fish on the list, Lulu, who made it 115 miles to the Hood Canal Bridge before dying. They called out her name, stretching the syllables sadly. “I can’t believe Lulu died,” a girl in a magenta shirt whispered to herself.
Bass took a comedically short moment of silence to remember the dead fish, and continued the lesson. Most students are prepared for the possibility of Fishy dying, he added later, because of their previous salmon instruction.
When asked if she thinks Fishy will survive, Stella Jordan Torgerson, 7, took a deep breath and considered the question. “I think he might … The population has been going down because of predators, cement and cutting trees,” she said.
Her skepticism was warranted. Fishy disappeared Monday near where Lulu died, a spot where hungry seals have learned to watch for steelhead confused by the bridge. Bass said the students were saddened by the news; one requested a funeral. A day of remembrance is on the docket.
Though the draw of the program is certainly the anthropomorphized fish, very little of Bass’ lesson actually focused on Fishy’s progress. Because Survive the Sound doesn’t have a strict lesson plan, teachers can also use the game as a way to develop other skills and prompt new questions.
Some have their students do a narrative writing or drawing assignment about their fish. Bass had his students journal lightheartedly about what Fishy’s final hours might’ve been like. Other times, he’s worked a little math into things.
“Turn to the person next to you and try to guess what the average return rate of salmon is when expressed as a percentage,” said Bass. When students gave an answer of about 2.5 percent, Bass pulled up a chart and his voice turned noticeably more serious.
“The return rate of coho salmon now is about 2.5 percent. But in 1978, it was more like 17 percent.
“There’s something happening in the Sound,” he said.
As the lesson closed and the students returned to their desks for silent reading time, Nichols posed a follow-up question to Bass. “I was really thinking about this 2.5 percent thing. Does that mean half a salmon comes back swimming?”
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