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Water | Environment

Salmon Go To School

SEATTLE — The students at Viewlands Elementary School have some interesting guests this winter.

Gabby Larsen is in fifth grade. She and her classmate Mahala Mrozek are standing in front of an aquarium in the hallway of their school. At the bottom of the tank round red salmon eggs clump and cluster together.

“I like coming down here because it’s kind of fun to see how much they’ve grown each day,” she says.

Soon these eggs will hatch. Mahala describes what happened last year:

“It was really cool because when you first hatch they still look like the egg except their head and tail are out because they still have the sack and use the food inside of it for their first week or two and then it finally goes away and they start looking like fish.”

Viewlands Elementary in northwest Seattle is one of about 500 schools in Washington involved with the Salmon in Schools program. The program lost state funding late last year but Seattle Public Utilities came up with the money to keep it afloat in 2012.

The eggs in this tank were donated by the Suquamish Tribe. Now, Mahala and Gabby test the water temperature every day to make sure it’s a salmon-friendly 45 degrees. It’s a big responsibility, but in the process they’re learning.

“Well they’re kind of interesting,” Mahala says, “the way that they go through their life cycle.”

Gabby excitedly adds, “The salmon, the place that they’re born, they can go to sea and come back and lay their eggs exactly where they were born. I think it’s natural reflexes, maybe because they want their child to grow up to be like them.”

Mahala and Gabby will watch over the hatchlings until they’re about 2 inches long. Then they’ll be ready to be released into the wild.

Most weekends you’ll find Bill Hagan walking along Piper’s Creek, in a park in northwest Seattle right around the corner from Viewlands Elementary school. As a salmon steward his job is to educate visitors about these fish. Hagan stands next to the large tank where Gabby and Mahala’s juvenile salmon will be held before he releases them into the nearby creek.

Bill Hagan at work
Bill Hagan tends to the salmon tanks at Carkeek Park./Katie Campbell

Salmon survival rates in urban streams in the Puget Sound area are low. In some places 80 percent of them die before spawning. Hagan says the salmon that are hatched in schools like Viewlands are not a solution to that problem. “I see this program as an educational program,” Hagan says. “Some say it’s a stock supplement but really, the amount of fish we get back isn’t going to build a big stock here.”

Only a handful of those eggs from Viewlands will survive to adulthood once they’re released. But even if the Salmon in Schools program isn’t solving the problems these fish face in urban streams, Hagan says it’s still an important learning tool that’s having real effects.

“I was talking to this group of people at the viewpoint here about what was happening and I got into my spiel a little bit and all of a sudden this 8-9 year old girl standing alongside me with her mother. She just stepped right in and finished the whole process,” Hagen says. “That little girl remembered that stuff from school, and her mother was a surprised as I was.”

Next year Gabby and Mahala will leave elementary school and head into the open waters of middle school. Gabby says who knows? Maybe they’ll see these salmon again someday. “Maybe when we’re in like, 7th grade we’re going to be like, Hey that’s that salmon that we raised in 5th grade.”

Mahala laughs, adding. “You wouldn’t really know how to tell though, so you could be pointing at some random salmon and then say I raised that salmon!”

(Text and audio by Ashley Ahearn. Photos and video by Katie Campbell.)

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