From left, Tustumena Elementary School fourth-graders David Burrow, Ayla Bunch and Levi Michael pull out salmon innards during a fish dissection Friday. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Patti Berkhahn visited the class to teach students about fish anatomy and ecology.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Fourth-graders in David Michael's Tustumena Elementary School class were interested in the parts of a salmon that most people aren't.
They weren't concerned with how much fight the fish might give them on the end of a line or the size of the fillet they may get for dinner.
It was the guts and goo generally cut out and discarded, left for gulls or washed back into the water that they were hunting for egg sacks and gill arches, digestive systems and eyeballs.
"I'm going to show you something that you'll always remember, and I'm sure your parents will thank me for it later," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Patti Berkhahn, as she showed students how to use their index fingers to pop out the silvery spheres. There were a few "eews," but they were mostly drowned out by the shouts of "cool" and jokes about "keeping an eye" on someone.
The class spent the afternoon Friday dissecting pink salmon and northern pike to learn about the fish inside and out. Berkhahn started the lesson with an explanation of fins and how fish move in the water, pointing out the steering and balance fins, and the caudal peduncle, where fish get their swimming power.
"What a nice challenge word that would be for spelling," Michael told the class, to a chorus of protests.
Then it was on to the innards. Berkhahn, Michael and retired Fish and Game biologist Gary Todd cut the specimens open, and the students took turns fishing out organs, while Berkhahn explained what everything was.
For the pike, students pulled out the stomachs and the adults helped them squeeze out the contents to see what the voracious, invasive fish found for a last meal before Fish and Game found them with their nets.
After the fish carcasses and piles of innards were wrapped up and put in the trash, the lesson continued with a review to give students a chance to retain what they learned without fish guts and eyeballs stealing their attention.
"That gobbler thing," one student guessed, when Berkhahn asked about the gal bladder.
Students even got a bonus tip on how to clean up lingering fishiness a shot of shaving cream in their hands.
"You moms and dads might wonder what we were doing if you came home smelling like fish," Michael said.
Berkhahn has 25 schools on the Kenai Peninsula involved in some form of salmon study during the school year, from learning about the watershed and how it's affected by pollution, to hatching eggs, releasing the fry and dissecting adult fish. She tries to get to each school at least once and can adapt the lesson to any age students, with younger kids not getting into too much detail and high school students dissecting everything, including the brain.
For Michael's fourth-grade class, the lesson focused on anatomy and ecology. Berkhahn explained how each part of the fish is suited to its watery environment.
"If you ever have to put a fish back, class, I hope you won't put your finger in those gills or let it knock around on the ground," Michael said, to highlight Berkhahn's point about how fragile fish are out of the water.
That's the overall goal of the lesson, that knowledge about salmon will breed respect for the resource.
"I didn't want kids to think if we let this fish run be destroyed, we could get new ones. The idea of the program is to instill stewardship," Berkhahn said. "I hope as they grow older, they'll remember this. They could be the fishery biologists of the future."
Jenny Neyman is the communications specialist at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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