Pioneer students get a schooling in biology
CRESCENT BAR – The new school was cold, but not cold enough. It was far, but not far enough. It had no walls, no roof and the floor under it was a mixture of wet sand and rocks.
In short, it was perfect.
The school in question is a group of tiny salmon babies that students from Pioneer Elementary School returned to the Columbia River last week as part of the Salmon in the Classroom project that Grant PUD sponsors across Grant County and into Chelan County.
The students – two busloads’ worth – rode to Crescent Bar and watched environmental educator Tiffany Bishop release the salmon into the cold waters of the Columbia. Salmon, Bishop told the students while dipping a thermometer into the water, prefer a temperature of 51 degrees, and this water was 60 degrees.
Not a problem, Bishop told the children. Salmon would likely seek colder, deeper waters as soon as they could, leaving the shore and about 50 kindergartners behind.
Before releasing, Bishop gave students a chance to wave goodbye to the tiny swimmers in the bucket. After the tiny salmon hit the water, some students worried when a boat drove by.
“The boat won’t catch your fish,” Bishop told the students. “They are too little.”
After releasing the fish Bishop taught the students about water clarity using a Secchi disk, which is an Oreo-sized circle split into four checkered, black-and-white sections. The point at which the checkered pattern can no longer be seen determines the transparency of the water, said Bishop, whose official title is Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program coordinator. The nonprofit Y-BEEP contracts with the PUD.
Because this was a kindergarten class and Bishop had to keep things simple, the disk sat at the bottom of a long tube, into which the children peered after Bishop filled it with river water. If they could see the black part of the pattern, the water was still too clear.
Salmon don’t like water that’s too clear, but they also don’t like water that’s too murky; it makes it hard for them to get oxygen, Bishop said.
“This water is salmon-clean, not people-clean,” quipped Bishop. “Not clean enough for us to drink but totally great for salmon. Same with the water. Do we like 50 degrees? No, that’s people-cold, but for salmon, perfect.”
The salmon would probably hang around the Crescent Bar area for about a year, Bishop said.
“Right now they are acclimating and memorizing the chemical signature of the scent of the water,” she told parents braving the blazing sunshine. After a year, they go to the ocean, where they can stay for up to a few years, with a single-minded purpose.
“They spend that whole time just eating, eating, eating,” Bishop said. “Krill and small fish.” Then, they begin their swim back to their place of birth, which can take several months. Unless, as a student pointed out, something unscheduled happens.
“A shark can catch them and eat them,” the child said.
“That’s exactly right – I want to catch them and eat them,” Bishop replied. “They are yummy.”
“Blech,” another child said.
Food critics notwithstanding, the program has proven a longtime favorite for children. Eighteen tanks with salmon set in classrooms around Central Washington, some as far away as Cashmere. At least four different Quincy schools, including High Tech High, the high school and the junior high, have a tank.
“What we like about salmon is that they are an endangered species that has very visually distinct life stages,” Bishop said. “So the students receive eggs the first week of school after winter break. The eggs then hatch out into alevin with the yolk sac, so it’s very distinct and different. Once they absorb the yolk sac they are fry, and they release anywhere from fry to fingerling stage.”
The purpose of this goes beyond learning basic biology skills, Bishop said. The focus also aims to yield homegrown product. And she doesn’t mean fish.
“Sometimes, educated people coming from Seattle and the larger cities come to this area and they aren’t used to the culture here. It’s a different culture than Seattle; it’s a little slower-paced.”
As a result, she said, professionals become unhappy and leave, taking years of experience and training with them.
“They are hoping,” Bishop said of the teachers, “that some of these students will get inspired by this and become biologists, because they are used to this environment and they love it. This is their family, this is their home, this is their culture, and they would stay, so any training that the PUD does would result in their staying.”
For now, the would-be biologists stayed, but the fish did leave. Despite the farewell, there was little sadness among the curious and cheerful kindergartners. Some of them anticipated a future meeting, perhaps at a dinner table or a sunny dock somewhere.
“See you in five years,” one of the children called.
— By Sebastian Moraga, email@example.com