ESCANABA – After months of work, the fifth grade science students from Escanaba Upper Elementary released the salmon fry they had raised from eggs into the Escanaba River Friday morning.
“They’ve done a great job. They really care about these salmon,” said Escanaba Upper Elementary fifth grade teacher Traci Pinar.
The 65 students in Pinar’s two science classes raised the fish as part of the Salmon in the Classroom program through Trout Unlimited and in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and the Escanaba River Association.
“It’s a great way to teach conservation to kids and the life-cycle of the fish,” said James Cantrill, vice president of the Fred Waara chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The Fred Waara chapter of Trout Unlimited, which is located in Marquette, works with seven schools – including Escanaba Upper Elementary – to bring the cold water fish into the classroom.
“We think we have the largest Salmon in the Classroom program in the United States, and we will purchase all the equipment and everything – huge aquariums that we put into elementary schools, middle schools, that type of thing,” said Cantrill.
The DNR provided the students at Escanaba Upper Elementary with 200 eggs in November. Of those eggs, roughly half grew into fish that survived to be released into the river.
“Last year we had like 160 – it was a really good year – but this year we had what they call EMS, early mortality syndrome, all across everybody that got their eggs,” explained Pinar. “They say you could lose up to like 75 percent of our population with that, so we were really worried because we had a huge die off.”
All of the students were taught the skills necessary to raise the fish from eggs to fry that could be released into the wild. The students were then broken into groups and each group was given a week to tend to the needs of the young fish.
“They actually change the water, they’re feeding everyday, they’re taking the measurements of the alkalinity and the pH, nitrates, nitrites – all that stuff,” said Pinar.
While all the students enjoyed releasing the fish, some enjoyed the other tasks necessary to raise the fish even more. For fifth grader Courtney Johnson, cleaning the tank was the best part of the project.
“It was really cool because a lot of the other kids didn’t know how to do it so then I would always have to go up with them. I don’t know I guess it was just really fun,” said Johnson, adding that releasing the fish was her second favorite part of the program.
Each student took time to name the fish they were releasing into the wild before saying their last goodbyes.
“We had five, we had five children. We had George; George Sr.; George Jr.; Georgina, and Erin,” said student Erin Davidson.
Because salmon that are not hatched in captivity return to the location where they hatched to spawn and these fish cannot return to the classroom, the fish who survive to spawning age will need to find their own places to mate and lay eggs.
“These fish, the ones that will make it out to (Lake) Michigan, they will probably find someplace, because that spawning urge is pretty strong. So they will find tributaries – maybe it’s the Escanaba, maybe it’s some of these others – and they will start doing it,” said Cantrill.
While neither Trout Unlimited nor the DNR track the fish to see if they return to the Escanaba River or if they chose other spawning locations, with any luck the students’ hard work will pave the way for future generations of salmon fry.
“(The students are) awesome. They’ve done more than I ever thought fifth graders could do, and this is our third year doing it,” said Pinar.