NACHES – Catching water bugs, observing beaver dens and checking the temperature of the Naches River were all part of class for a group of fifth graders last Friday morning.
More than 50 students – plus another 50 in the afternoon – took their turn joining Salmon in the Classroom coordinator Tiffany Bishop to find the best place to release the chinook salmon they’d raised from eggs over the past few months. It’s the first time kids could join Bishop and others for the program’s climactic event since before the pandemic, in 2019.
“It’s heart-filling is what it is,” said Bishop, the executive director of the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program. “I firmly believe kids need to be outside once in a while and connect with their environment, and it’s (been) a long couple years without that.”
Participating Yakima County schools began their releases last week, and elementary students from Ellensburg, Thorp and Easton said goodbye to their salmon the week before. Bishop said by June, 69 teachers and more than 5,000 students will have completed the program by releasing their salmon at various sites throughout the region.
Naches Valley’s fifth grade science teacher, Glenn Ferguson, said he’s taught students about the salmon for one hour every week on “Fish Fridays” since their eggs supplied by the Priest Rapids Hatchery arrived last fall. He took his students to see some trout at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Naches hatchery after Friday’s salmon release and said his students’ minds “were just totally blown” when Bishop visited to lead the class through fish dissections earlier this year.
“They’ve really clung onto the life cycle and just the hazards of how tough it is to actually keep natural salmon alive and just what a small percentage of them are actually able to return,” Ferguson said. “An adult female chinook spawns and gives off (3,000)-5,000 eggs and when it’s all said and done, maybe three to five of those fish survive to come back and spawn again.”
In order to learn more about what would give their salmon the best chance to beat those long odds, students split up into small groups led by volunteers from various local organizations to try to find the best spot to release their fish. Ten-year-old Danielle Gilstrap went through a checklist at two different sites for one group as Mid-Columbia Fisheries Yakima basin program director Rebecca Wassell explained the importance of factors such as water quality, the availability of macroinvertebrates salmon like to eat, and access to the river where the young fish will go to make their long journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Bishop said one student told her the salmon release made Friday his “best day at school ever” and WDFW volunteer Emily Phillip said these experiences can be valuable in encouraging kids to pursue careers in science. The 2021 Central Washington graduate who grew up in Spokane works on the Region 3 water science team and enjoys taking advantage of opportunities to share her knowledge with kids.
“We didn’t do any field trips with the different agencies,” Phillips said. “That’s why it’s really fun now to be able to volunteer because I would have loved this as a kid.”
The COVID-19 pandemic denied students that opportunity the past two years, although a few teachers still released their salmon via livestream while students learned from home in 2020 and some local preschoolers helped release salmon raised at the Yakima Area Arboretum in 2021. Even this school year the field trips typically associated with the program remained limited, in part due to Yakama Nation restrictions preventing visitors at facilities such as its hatcheries near Prosser and Ellensburg.
The tribe still played an integral role in the program, providing resources such as access to the land where students explored various potential release sites on Friday. Ferguson said before the school year ends he plans to speak to his students more about the Yakama Nation’s deep connection to salmon, a valuable species for which they’ve led the way on extensive recovery efforts in the Yakima Basin.
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