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Schoolchildren Help Recover Atlantic Salmon

Elementary school students searching the stream. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS
Elementary school students in large waders searching the stream with nets. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS

The Atlantic salmon, once previously extinct in the Connecticut River, is getting by with a little help from its friends.

In the early 1800s, the Connecticut River stock of this bright, silvery-colored fish disappeared, reaping the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution. The construction of dams prevented many Atlantic salmon from reaching their traditional spawning areas in the Connecticut River. Water pollution, habitat loss from construction and poor land usage, overfishing and illegal fishing also contributed to the drastic decline of the population.

Cue the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.

This multi-agency, interstate commission works toward species restoration. With the cooperative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, State fish and wildlife departments in the watershed, the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts, private organizations and industry, there has been successful reintroduction of Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River.

Atlantic salmon’s friend list continues to grow, as a program to hatch and grow salmon spreads like wildfire into the classroom.

First brought to Massachusetts in 1992 as the Adopt a Salmon program, the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) was developed in 1997 with Trout Unlimited. ASERP, a subdivision of the Salmon in the Schools Program, awards students the experience of hatching and raising Atlantic salmon, with the intent of later releasing them into cleaned, nearby community streams and rivers. As of this year, there are 55 schools involved in the program.

Salmon in the Monson Schools

Seven years ago, the daughter of Richard Cronin National Salmon Station Project Leader Mickey Novak was in Dawn Lecours’s fourth grade class at the Quarry Hill Community School in Monson, Massachusetts. Novak, wanting his daughter to be involved in ASERP, approached Lecours about introducing the program to her class. Lecours said yes.

“The rest,” Novak said, “is history.”

This year, beginning as early as October with a hatchery trip to observe spawning, Lecours’s fourth grade class has been learning about— and practicing raising salmon eggs. While the young students are helping Atlantic salmon restoration efforts, they are also being exposed to many natural resource concepts. “The program encompasses every aspect of the Massachusetts educational curriculum directive,” Novak said.

Students finding the water's pH level. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS
Students finding the water's pH level. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS

On a Monday in late May, 22 students from Lecours’s class met with Novak, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary Horticulturist Leslie Duthie and volunteers behind the Monson Police Department at Chicopee Brook, where they split into groups for hands-on learning about insects, plants and the stream.

After a briefing on safety procedures, students excitedly put on oversized waders and hurried into the stream. In pairs, they kicked around some of the streambed mud into nets, searching for different species. After boasting about their findings—which they captured in nets after failed attempts at catching tiny fish barehanded—they placed the creatures into a bucket for later observation.

Moving from the center of the brook to the banks, the students learned where the majority of species lived. At the end of the day, after numerous “look-what-I-found” shouts, they saw more than a dozen species of insects and three types of fish, all of which were released unharmed back into their stream.

Duthie, who the students call “the Plant Lady,” talked about the importance of the protecting areas surrounding bodies of water. From state laws to the effects of over-fertilizing and gas leaks from cars, the students answered many questions in their field booklets with their new knowledge.

Carefully straying from poison ivy leaves, Duthie and the enthusiastic students then walked along the fence separating the Chicopee Brook from the adjacent ball fields, reviewing the pros and cons of invasive plants along the stream.  

“If [the students] don’t appreciate what’s on the other side of that fence,” Duthie cautioned, “who’s going to take care of it next?”

Lecours sparked interest at her stream studies station as well. Using a tape measurer stretching 10 feet, a tennis ball attached to a length of string and a stopwatch, the students creatively recorded the speed of the river’s flow while standing in the water.

“Is this water moving fast enough to support our salmon?”

“Yes!” the students shouted unanimously.  

Tying math to the stream studies, Lecours asked her class what percentage of the stream is bedrock, gravel, silt and organic debris—terms the students had previously learned through ASERP. She then had the students fill small cups with water to check the water’s odor, color and pH level—a term still a bit troubling for the students.

Mickey Novak showing students a female crayfish. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS
Mickey Novak showing students a female crayfish. Credit: Gillian Ball/USFWS

“I forget what it’s called,” one student said, “but I know it starts with a ‘p.’”

Wednesday, May 26, was time for goodbyes.

Lecours’s class, along with eight adult volunteers, hopped on the bus and headed to the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station. Novak showed the students a group of four-year-old salmon that had changed their color by mimicking their new hatchery surrounding and jars holding more than 8,000 fish eggs.

After a walk around the pond, a few posed photos with the scarecrow and a student-initiated frog counting competition, the class hopped back on the bus and went to the Saw Mill River—with water temperature matching the temperature of the aquarium—to release their salmon fry.

“Downstream you go,” said one student as she let the fry swim out of her water cup and into the river. And in a soft whisper, “I miss you already, little salmon.”

Shin-deep in water, a few of the boys were less attached to their fry, but still worried about their habitat. Pointing to a hunk of metal, one student expresses his concern. “Somebody tell Mr. Novak! This could be water pollution,” he said.

Lecours defends the genuineness of her students’ newfound interest in not only Atlantic salmon, but in nature as well, over their unified, bus-ride singing of “The Habitat Song.” “From the beginning of the program, these kids have gotten into it. They love the field trips, but they get excited in the classroom, too,” she said. “They take on the responsibility of feeding the salmon and checking the water.”

Eight of Lecours’s students were inspired to take on additional responsibility, as they went into several second and third grade classrooms to educate other students on life cycles and “how Atlantic salmon are special.”

Novak wrapped up the program by bringing the students to the Holyoke Fish Lift, where they watched the lift in action from the observation deck, and later saw American shad and sea lampreys swim in the viewing room.   

“We just want to expose kids to natural resources,” Novak said about ASERP. He explains that while the program is a step in the right direction toward the efforts of Atlantic salmon restoration, getting young people away from video games and into nature is its greatest success. “We open [the students’] eyes to nature, and then let them decide if it’s for them or not,” he said. “It’s really all about getting these kids outside.”

Flickr.com icon For more photos of the salmon program, check out our Flickr photo album!

Story and photos by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Gillian Ball.


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Last updated: July 6, 2010
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