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AK: swimming with the salmon, kids learn through community engagement

There are no colorful fish swimming in this aquarium in the school foyer, but every day kids in Kodiak, Alaska, eagerly check it out nonetheless. To the outsider, it looks like nothing much is happening in the chilly tank. To Kodiak students, it may be the day you can see the black dot that appears in the fertilized salmon egg (December), the afternoon the cover of the egg becomes translucent, or the momentous morning the eggs hatch (around spring break).

“Our kids get a real kick from it,” says teacher Josh Lewis. They graph temperatures, learn what happens if algae takes over the tank, and watch for the different cycles to evolve—eyed eggs, hatch, alevin, button up, swim up, and fry (young fish). The students are learning the life of salmon, paralleling the exact development you’d see in the wild. In the fall they collect spawning silver (Coho) salmon from a local stream, strip the eggs from the females, fertilize the eggs, and take them back to individual schools to start the incubation process. Alaska State Fish and Game biologists train high school and middle school students to accomplish the egg takes and raise the fish.

As students watch over the eggs, “the kids become ‘parents,’” says Lewis. A refrigerated coil turns the water in the twenty-nine gallon tank as cold as the snowy stream in the Alaska wilds. Eventually in spring, it’s time to take the fry back to the stream they started from. “The day students return them to stream is very emotional,” says Lewis. “The kids know that fewer than 10 percent actually make it to adulthood.”

The Salmonid Education Program is a shared effort that has become a part of the fabric of the community, just like the salmon. In the spring, Kodiak celebrates the return of the Pacific salmon by holding a giant Coho Carnival downtown, right by the harbor. A long line of kids are learning fly-tying, older students man booths with watershed information, tide pool studies, salmon identification, and tagging. Local stores and companies provide hotdogs and a barbeque cart.

All during the year, the local aquaculture association works with teachers and youth; other state and federal fisheries-related businesses often visit classrooms, presenting career opportunities. The state Fish and Game Department makes possible the licensing for remote egg takes in streams near the village schools. 

“Josh Lewis does phenomenal work with bringing the whole salmon culture into the classroom as well as to the community,” says Laurie Busness, Kodiak director of curriculum.

Sometimes the community involvement is overwhelming. Last year, says Lewis, “Fish and Game had recommended that we get brush to maintain some habitat, so we put out a call for used Christmas trees. Next thing we knew, we had a mountain of them.” Several parents drilled holes through the trunks of the trees and local contractors helped to cable together the mass of trees to rebuild a stream bank.

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This story was written by Elaine Furlow, a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

Posted: February 22, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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Home > Success stories > Success stories by state > Alaska > AK: swimming with the salmon, kids learn through community engagement