EASTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) -- Infant Atlantic salmon are getting a head start thanks to some enthusiastic foster grandparents here.
''They are just like kids. When they are ready to start eating, you better to be ready to feed them,'' said Al Miller, 77, as he showed off the refrigerated 30-gallon tank at the Senior Citizens Center.
In a joint project with an ecology class at Easthampton High School, seniors are hatching 300 salmon eggs and carefully rearing the half-inch long hatchlings for release into a nearby tributary of the Connecticut River later this spring.
''It's been unbelievable,'' said center director Linda Talbot. ''Every day we have different people from the community coming in to check on the progress of the fish.''
''It's unique and we are very excited about it,'' said Jan Rowan, who coordinates the Atlantic salmon restoration program in the Connecticut River for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nearly 100 schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, are helping raise salmon fry in the six-year-old environmental education program that supplements 7 million hatchery raised fry, she said. But only one senior citizens center.
''It's all about clean water, and that affects everyone, young and old,'' said Miller.
''You wouldn't think of it looking at that, but they are really very delicate,'' Miller said pointing to a mounted trophy of a fierce four-foot adult Atlantic salmon, caught by another Easthampton man in Nova Scotia. ''If a salmon can survive in the water anything can.''
The trophy is part of a nearly wall-long educational exhibit the seniors have built around the tank tracing the life history of the fish and the efforts to rebuild the runs in New England's longest salmon river after they were stopped for 200 years by dams.
The hatchlings -- so tiny that Talbot has attached a big magnifying glass to the tank's view port -- are so sensitive to changes in water chemistry that even the fragile shells must be carefully and quickly removed with a turkey baster when the fish hatch.
The school program arose out of concerns that people, not knowing what they looked like, were mistaking young salmon in the tributaries for unprotected fish, Rowan said.
The minnows live in the little tributaries for two years before heading out to sea where they will grow into adulthood and return to spawn.
''It began as a very pragmatic thing. But we found the kids were very interested. They involved their parents and they wound up extending it into the community,'' she said.
The stocking of the hatchery-raised fry, which began last weekend -- earlier than usual because this winter's mild temperatures led to an early thaw -- is now done annually by hundreds of volunteers.
Like many of his contemporaries, Miller, a member of Trout Unlimited, can remember when the Connecticut and its tributaries ran yellow and white with industrial wastes.
Now that the river is cleaner, his dream is to see a fish ladder built over a small city-owned dam on the Manhan River that would allow the salmon access once again to the spawning grounds here.
''We have four-five years before these little fish are ready to return to get the place ready for them,'' he said.
''We were lucky,'' said Robert Belliveau, 78. ''When were growing up in the '20s and '30s, everybody was poor so to entertain ourselves we did a lot of nature stuff -- hunting, fishing, boating. The outdoors was free.''
And now, the veteran fly fishermen -- armed with their salmon trophy and charts of whirligigs, hellgrammites and other multi-legged stream critters -- are hitting city classrooms looking to pass on their woodcraft and commitment to another generation.
They are finding a receptive audience.
Chris Dunay, a junior at Easthampton High, said he expected to be bored and had considered dropping the ecology class until the seniors arrived.
''I really enjoy science and I didn't want to learn about it just sitting here listening to a teacher,'' he said. Now, Dunay said, he's ''very glad'' he stayed.
While Little Linda, Sophia, Dorris and all the other hatchlings -- the urge to name a salmon you've watched hatch has proved irresistible -- grow to release size of about an inch and a half, the students will inventory the stream and the surrounding woods, identifying and making lists of all the plants, insects, and other aquatic life.
''Then in May they will form into teams and pick up all the plastic bags and other rubbish along the stream,'' Belliveau said. ''Once they have it all cleaned up they will get to put in the fish.''
Since the first salmon in the restoration program returned to the Connecticut River in 1974, the runs have amounted to at best a few hundred fish. Last year, with wild salmon runs down around the world and a late spring and high water, was one of the worst with only 40 counted.
Still, the seniors aren't discouraged.
''These kids will see this through,'' Belliveau said.
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