Students learn facts of salmon life on Delta Clearwater River

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2001

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) -- As fisheries biologist Craig Baer stood in the water holding up a bright-red, coho salmon in front of him, fellow biologist Fritz Kraus broke the news to the 100 or so grade schoolers lining the bank of the Delta Clearwater River.

''Kids,'' he began in a somber tone, ''now we're going to kill the fish.''

Moans and groans rose up from the young audience.

''We don't like killing the fish, but we have to be able to handle them safely,'' Kraus explained, trying to quell the children's distress. ''Otherwise they'll jump and flop around and we won't be able to get the eggs.''

That said, Baer and Kraus turned their backs to the children and Kraus whacked the fish in the head three times with a club. There were more groans and moans from the audience as the series of ''thuds'' could be heard over the microphone on Kraus' headset.

Kraus laid the dead fish, still quivering, on a table in front of him while Baer retrieved a second salmon, this one a fire engine-red male with a sharply hooked nose. As Baer held the fish up, Kraus explained the difference between a male and female salmon. The males have hooked noses and are usually much thinner than the females.

''Now we're going to kill this fish,'' Kraus said, turning his back to the children and whapping the fish in the head three times.

He set the fish on the table next to the female and turned his attention back to the kids.

''Does anybody know what happens when salmon spawn?'' Kraus asked.

''They die,'' the children said in unison.

''That's right,'' Kraus said, ''Every salmon you see in the Delta Clearwater River today will die after they spawn. If you come back here in three weeks you'll smell dead salmon, but that's a good thing.''

Kraus went on to tell the kids that even though the adult fish die and never actually see their young, their rotting bodies act as fertilizer and help the baby fish grow.

To illustrate his point, Kraus asked the kids how many of their families grew gardens.

''What do you do to a garden to make it grow?'' Kraus asked.

''Fertilize it!'' the children responded.

''That's right, you fertilize it,'' Kraus approved. ''That's exactly what the salmon are doing to the Delta Clearwater River when they die.''

Kraus held the female fish he had killed over a white, five-gallon bucket and inserted a small letter opener in a hole in the salmon's belly. He sliced the fish open and bright, pink eggs poured out of the fish into the bucket.

''There's probably 2,500 to 3,500 eggs in these fish,'' Kraus said.

Then Baer demonstrated how the male fertilizes the egg, squirting a stream of milt -- or sperm -- into the bucket.

''Are these eggs fertilized yet?'' Kraus asked.

There was a smattering of ''no's'' from the crowd.

''Salmon don't spawn on a table, they spawn in the water,'' Kraus told the children. ''When I add water to these eggs they will literally come to life in seconds.''

Kraus dipped the top of the bucket into the river to allow some water to flow in. Then he swished the water and eggs around.

''You witnessed the birth of salmon right there,'' Kraus said told the children.

One day each October, the Delta Clearwater River is transformed into a giant, outdoor classroom. Instead of textbooks, the children study silver salmon that biologists catch in the river.

The Delta Clearwater River serves as the main spawning ground for the Yukon River's coho salmon run. Each year, about 9,000 fish return to spawn, burying their eggs in the gravel of the spring-fed Delta Clearwater before dying off and rotting.

The fish enter the Yukon River as shiny as a new quarter but by the time they reach the Delta Clearwater some 1,200 miles removed from salt water, they are as red as lipstick and ready to spawn.

In addition to witnessing the spawning process, the kids learn that for every 1,000 or so salmon eggs, only one fish returns to the spawning grounds. The rest of them never hatch, are frozen in ice, washed away by floods, run over by four-wheelers crossing streams, eaten by bears, eagles or other fish, or caught by sport, commercial or subsistence fishermen, among other things.

Children learn the anatomy of a salmon, how to tell males from females and why slime can be good (it helps salmon elude the grasp of bears and helps ward off disease). They discover that the fish spend more time growing in the Delta Cleawater River (2-3 years) than they do in the Bering Sea (18 months).

''I like the way the male has a hooked beak,'' reported 10-year-old Shamariah Hale, a fourth-grader at Wood River Elementary School in Fairbanks.

''It was fun watching them get the eggs,'' said 7-year-old Delanny Eller, a second-grader at Weller Elementary.

This year, upward of 400 school children from 10 different elementary schools ventured to Delta Junction for the annual Salmon Celebration hosted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Each school gets a jar of about 250 fertilized salmon eggs to raise in a 29-gallon aquarium. A chiller keeps the water temperature at approximately 38 degrees, identical to the conditions the eggs would experience overwinter in the Delta Clearwater River.

Students spend the next seven months monitoring the development of the eggs, which is determined by the temperature of the water. The warmer the water, the faster they grow. In about six weeks, the students will see two black dots that are the fish's eyes.

The eggs hatch into alevin in January or February, surviving on the yolk sack they are still contained in. By April, the eggs have grown into small fish called fry and the kids begin feeding them. They are released in May, either back into the Delta Clearwater River or in Bathing Beauty Pond, south of Fairbanks.

In the past 10 years, Kraus, the biologist, estimates that he has put some 10,000 students through the program, which has grown exponentially the last few years.

Fairbanks is but one of several stops on Fish and Games salmon tour. They also do egg takes in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai Peninsula. Kraus coordinates with approximately 100 schools on the road system. This year, some 2,500 students attended the Anchorage egg take.

''The nice thing about it is that kids can relate to it,'' Kraus said. ''Everybody knows something about salmon; it's such an Alaska thing.''

A few years ago, Kraus traveled to Idaho to try to establish a similar program there but he said the interest level from teachers and students wasn't there.

''They didn't have the resource; there's a whole generation that hasn't had the resource,'' he said. ''They just weren't into it. They couldn't relate.''

The aim of the program in Alaska is to teach students what it takes to perpetuate healthy salmon runs.

''This is not an enhancement project,'' Kraus stressed. ''This is strictly for education. We want them to be better stewards of the resource.''

Daisy Zhang was in charge of carrying the white foam plastic cooler holding the jar of salmon eggs for her eighth-grade class at Ryan Middle School.

''I just hope they don't smell,'' Zhang said, walking to her bus with classmates.

Although the egg take was ''kind of disgusting,'' it was also ''pretty cool,'' the 13-year-old Zhang said.

''Seeing all those eggs come out is amazing,'' she said. ''It's going to be cool watching them hatch and grow.''

From a teachers perspective, it's hard to find a better lesson plan than raising baby salmon. It's like having a living, breathing textbook in the classroom for eight months.

''You get a theme that runs through the whole school year,'' said John Donaldson, a teacher at Whitestone Farms in Delta Junction.

Last year, Donaldson's seventh and eighth graders participated in the program. They put pictures of the eggs, taken with a special microscope, up on a Web site each week. This year, he brought second, third and fourth graders.

''Kids race to the classroom every day to take the temperature of the water,'' he said. ''You get second-graders doing record keeping and keeping data.

''A lot of people here eat salmon. It gets them connected to the whole circle of life.''

A fourth-grade teacher at Wood River Elementary School, Kathleen Wright jumped at the chance to get involved in the project this year after the teacher who did for the school last year moved to the Lower 48.

At last week's egg take, she showed up with two coolers, a small one with ice packs and a larger one to put the small one in.

''I'm a new mother here,'' a nervous Wright said, explaining the double cooler method.

Wright was already excited about the teaching possibilities the project afforded. Salmon is such an integral part of Alaska and is tied to much more than biology, she said.

''You can talk about salmon being part of the Alaska economy,'' Wright said. ''You can tie salmon into Native legends and culture.''

Some of Wright's students were equally excited about watching the eggs develop.

''It's a bummer tomorrow is a weekend,'' said Hale. ''We can't watch them grow.''


Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us