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Kids release salmon in Escanaba River

Andie Balenger | Daily Press Sixth grade students from Gladstone Junior High kneel near the Escanaba River as they release their salmon smolt. Students gathered at Pioneer Park on Friday to conclude their Salmon in the Classroom project, which began in November with 150 Chinook salmon eggs.

ESCANABA — Gladstone Junior High School has concluded its 12th annual Salmon in the Classroom program Friday with students releasing the 140 Chinook salmon they have been raising since early December into the Escanaba River.

The entire sixth grade class at Gladstone, who have been studying the salmon from egg to smolt (a small fingering), arrived by the busload at Pioneer Trail Park’s boat launch early Friday morning. With plastic bag in hand, they waited to receive their individual salmon from volunteer chaperones and members of Trout Unlimited, a Michigan non-profit organization, to be released into the cool river water.

Salmon in the Classroom is a program that gives salmon eggs to classrooms. Students then raise the salmon throughout the school year until they are ready to be released into the wild.

Callie DuRoy, Gladstone sixth grader, said releasing the salmon was a rewarding moment.

“I think it is really cool that we got to see them from the egg stage to now when the salmon are basically at the smolt stage,” DuRoy said. “Just because we got to feed them every day and now we are finally releasing them. It was just really cool.”

Andrew Doutree, sixth grade teacher and organizer of Salmon in the Classroom project, brought the program to Gladstone Area Schools back in 2010. Through his experience conducting the program, Doutree notes the continuing value of the project for young students living in the Upper Peninsula.

“This is a program that connects kids to the importance of Chinook salmon and the Great Lakes,” Doutree said. “It emphasizes the economic and ecologic value of the fish that occupy our waters.”

The raising and maintenance of the Chinook salmon goes well beyond feeding. Students were required to look after the 75-gallon tank that the salmon resided in for nearly six months, which included maintaining pH, ammonia, and nitrate levels along with cleaning the tank of waste. Students were also shown how to sustain healthy oxygen levels and a cool temperature, 50 degrees Fahrenheit, within the tank which allowed for the salmon to thrive.

“At this age, students are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn,” Doutree said, “They have reached an age where they need something hands-on to truly understand the effects.”

In addition to the hands-on learning approach, class content has recently been tailored towards the history and impact of Chinook salmon in the Great Lakes. Students not only learned about the Chinook salmon’s life cycle, but the anatomy and physiology of the fish as well.

“We just recently dived into the anatomy of the fish with dissections,” Doutree said. “The students were learning the inner and outer parts of the fish and the specific functions of each organ.”

Students helped Doutree transfer the salmon smolt from their tank to a portable cooler so they could be safely shipped to the boat launch.

“My favorite part of today was when I helped take out all of the fish from their tank,” Nolan Britton, Gladstone sixth grader, said. “It was pretty hard trying to catch all of them.”

Trout Unlimited has contributed to the Salmon in the Classroom program by not only providing the supplies necessary to raise the salmon, but also assisting in the release process and providing a bug identification station at the park. Students were shown both live and sample invertebrates that occupy the same aquatic environment as the salmon they raised, providing examples of what the fish may eat as they adjust to the new waters.

“It was cool to see the salmon in their natural habitat,” Izabella Herzog, Gladstone sixth grader, said. “We watched them grow up, and now we are letting them go.”

Members from Trout Unlimited also demonstrated the technique and methods of fly fishing to students. Using practice rods with no hooks, students were able to get a feel for this style of fishing that varies greatly from the traditional spin rod that most are accustomed to. Trout Unlimited funded Friday’s field trip in its entirety as well.

“This hand-on experience is much more important than any lecture topic or assignment,” Doutree said. “Most students are learning how to fish at this age, or are working towards their hunter’s safety license. This program demonstrates the importance of live fish.”

After releasing the salmon and spending the morning learning outdoors at the park, the students traveled to Manistique for a scheduled tour of the Thompson Fish Hatchery.

“Students always tell me that this is what they remember from my class, the fish and the field trip.” Doutree said. “This day is usually the best day of sixth grade.”

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