I’ll call her Susie. I watch as she kneels beside Clear Creek, holding a little cup, half full of water. Inside is a baby salmon smaller than her little finger. The 9-year-old frowns at the stream, reluctant to part with her tiny charge. But it’s time to let go. With luck, the tiny fish will survive its journey from here to the nearby salt water inlet. Susie sighs and slowly tilts the cup; the little fish slides out, flicks its tail, flashes silver, and disappears.
Last January, Susie’s class and 52 other 4th grade classrooms in Kitsap County, each received 100 salmon eggs (“roe”) from the Suquamish Tribe’s Grovers Creek Hatchery. The eggs were deposited in custom tanks built by Silverdale Kiwanis members 32 years ago (out of old refrigerator parts!). The fragile eggs (picture pinkish marbles with eyes) were tended lovingly by students as they studied the salmons’ life cycle.
After four or five weeks, the eggs began to hatch into “alevins”; they looked like tiny fish, but their bulging yolk sacs were still attached. Imagine carrying around a food-filled backpack strapped to your stomach! Once nature’s nourishment was exhausted, students fed the fish, now called “fry,” a special diet supplied by the home hatchery. In the meantime, each child participated by monitoring water temperature and keeping it clean.
On this sunny day in March, Susie and her classmates have gathered at Clear Creek Park to release a hundred baby chum salmon. Students are divided into small groups in order to learn more about the fish’s life cycle.
Some children are emulating those weird-looking stream bugs that fry will feed on. In this game, physical exercise is on the menu. Each child, happily mimicking the swimming motions peculiar to his assigned insect species, happily hops, or flaps his arms, or wiggles, or bounces along beside the stream. Microscopes are on hand to get up close and personal with the live insects themselves. But, as students learn, there’s a downside: if a creek’s water quality is degraded by human activity, such as tree removal and use of lawn fertilizer, that essential bug supply is reduced.
Elsewhere in the park, another group learns how, several years from now, nature will perform its miracle as surviving salmon come from distant seas to find this natal stream again and lay their eggs. Amazingly, in the journey’s final stage, it’s done by smell. Each child plays “adult fish,” first sniffing a pleasant scent, then searching for a matching fragrance somewhere nearby. Success! The student then repeats the process, but this time he must match up with a different scent that represents polluted creek water. Aha! Not so easy to locate the birth stream if humans have messed it up! Along the way, volunteers call attention to creek-side trees, bushes, and wetlands, all part of nature’s equation for healthy salmon habitat.
When it’s time for each group to release the fry, a docent stands by as one tiny fish after another is released by its student guardian, and swims away to meet its destiny. Are the cards really stacked against our once flourishing salmon runs? Maybe not, if Susie and thousands of students who came before, will remember this magical experience and lead the way to better management of a prized natural resource.
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Besides its Kiwanis founders, this program has attracted valued partners, including the Clear Creek Task Force, Clean Water Kitsap, Air Management Solutions, Kitsap Public Utilities District #1, the Suquamish Tribe, the Kitsap Health Dept., WSU Extension, and those exceptional volunteers!