Students fish for salmon science

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2005


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  Tyler Slater checks out a king salmon he caught during a session about ethical angling. Photo by Layton Ehmke

Patti Berkhahn (right) shows a student from Mount View Elementary how to bounce her line to catch a fish in the frozen Sport Lake. This is the second year for the program Berkhahn heads called, "Salmonis in the Classroom," which focuses heavily upon hands-on learning.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

It is the hope of fisheries biologist Patti Berkhahn to instill good stewardship and environmental ethics in area school kids. She's been educating through real experience as she takes her students where they can get their hands on the knowledge.

Last week, students of the central Kenai Peninsula spent the school day outside learning how to ice-fish in an installment of a salmon life-span education program.

Berkhahn leads the seven-month program, "Salmonids in the Classroom," through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish. She said the applications of the curriculum are practical and valuable to Alaskans. Berkhahn works with 12 schools that have their own operative program.

"They'll have knowledge of the entire life cycle of a salmon. The hope is that these kids will apply what they've learned and feel some sort of ownership to it. They can teach their friends and parents about ethical angling techniques, too," she said.

Berkhahn worked with 265 students from seven central peninsula schools who came to ice fish Thursday at Sport Lake.

"It came out pretty well. There were 43 king salmons caught, and four students caught their first fish ever. Every group of kids caught some fish," she said. "The program focuses on what conditions are necessary for salmon survival, while conveying some sense of stewardship over the natural resource."

Department of Fisheries staff from Soldotna and Palmer helped at Sport Lake by drilling holes and supplying gear. The lake is annually stocked with several thousand rainbow trout and kings from the Elmendorf and Fort Richardson State Fish Hatcheries in Anchorage. Berkhahn said the program is doing well in its second year. Salmonids in the Classroom is funded in part through federal grants which are dispersed through the state Fish and Game department.

Students angled for kings, reds, and rainbow trout. Tyler Slater, third-grader, caught a young king and had some good advice for getting a catch.

"This takes patience, and you've got to dress warmly. I'm using shrimp bait," he said.


Tyler Slater checks out a king salmon he caught during a session about ethical angling.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

The program teaches the four stages in the life cycle of salmonids, which requires several field trips and interactive, hands-on learning. Each of the four stages; the eyed egg, alevin, fry stages, and the release into native habitat, is covered.

"Students learn about each of the four stages in depth. We start off with the egg take and end with the release. It goes full circle," she said. "For the incubation period, each classroom gets a 50 gallon fish tank and we give them about 250 eggs to start out with. We go through the whole life process learning about stream ecology along the way. At the end of the year is the Johnson Lake Salmon Celebration coming up in May. This will be the culmination of everything we've learned."

Berkhahn said sixth-graders from Sterling Elementary will teach younger students what they know at Johnson Lake.

"We have 14 booths to enhance the knowledge they already have. This ties together all four stages, and at what point in the life cycle they are all happening. Sport fishing guides volunteer to teach fly and spin casting. We have different kinds of fry in tanks where they can identify the species. The state parks have a boating safety station and a tracking station with furs and skulls to match," Berkhahn said.

Dave Knudsen, third-grade teacher at Mount View Elementary, helped at the Sport Lake event. He said the program is excellent in offering a wide variety of things to learn, and it is critical to living and growing up on the Kenai Peninsula.

"The entire project is important to where we live, from dissecting salmon, to hiking up to Russian River Falls to learn about the elements of the watershed. Patti (Berkhahn) talks about how the falls are a small part of the watershed, then we do a walking field trip out to the wetlands, and the kids apply that to their own watershed they make out of flour and salt. Just having the hands on experience and creating their own activity makes them internalize that knowledge," Knudsen said.

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