By Joseph Robertia
“Why don’t salmon have eyelids?” It may sound like the start of a joke but was a real question, one of many asked and answered during this year’s Salmon in the Classroom program, presented by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education program and the Kenai Peninsula School District. The program took place along the banks of Bear Creek near Seward on Oct. 6 and the Anchor River on Oct. 7.
For the record, the answer is because they live in a liquid environment, so their eyes don’t dry out.
That’s a concept some of the students participating had never considered, which is partially the point of the program — to get kids thinking about the aquatic animals that many have spent their lives around, yet never really learned the basics about.
“It’s cute some of the things that they think and say when we start going over salmon identification, biology, life cycles and habitat requirements,” said Jenny Cope, a Fish and Game sportfish biologist from the Soldotna office.
During the course of the two-day egg take, Cope said that she hears just about every question imaginable, this year from about 300 students at Bear Creek and 400 at the Anchor River, as well as some reasonably well-thought-out, though still incorrect, answers to her own queries.
“No, it’s not fertilizer the male puts on the eggs,” she said at the Anchor Point location. “No, it’s milt with a ‘T,’ not milk that comes out of the males,” she corrected another. “Yes, there is a king salmon, but no, there is no queen salmon,” she added later.
While the kids were a little unclear how it all worked at the beginning of the day, seeing — and for a lucky few students — feeling how the process of salmon egg fertilization works became as clear as crystal creek water.
“We hope that this is memorable for them,” Cope said.
What wouldn’t be memorable about seeing a plump-bellied, ripe and ready-to-spawn female coho salmon sliced open and her thousands of fluorescent pink eggs plopped into a clear plastic bucket, followed by a crimson-colored male fish massaged down his large abdomen until he squirts a creamy stream of milt onto the eggs.
“There is a range of emotions from the kids. Some are blown away, some are grossed out and there’s probably a few who wish they hadn’t seen it,” said Mike Booz, a Fish and Game sportfish biologist from Homer.
“For the most part, though, this is a good experience for them and for us to kick off this program,” Booz said. “A lot of these kids are from sportfishing or commercial fishing families, but getting to see us spawn a salmon is still new for them.”
The kids transport the fertilized eggs back to their schools, where they are placed in aquariums for observation and study as they develop.
“We typically have 32 schools raising coho salmon throughout the school year, with about 42 teachers taking advantage of the program. We also work with several homeschool programs and although they do not have incubation tanks, they do partake in salmon dissections and the large events we offer,” Cope said.
“We’ve had good success rates with the kids taking them back, as long as they keep the water cool and stable,” Booz added.
Cheryl Romatz, a third-grade teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, said that her students look forward to the egg take the whole school year.
“I have one student who didn’t sleep at all the night before and several others who couldn’t focus all week because they knew we were coming,” she said.
Many of the students heard about the event from older siblings or have seen the tanks with swimming fry in their school and were excited to take part in the fertilization field trip themselves.
“Taking the eggs back and watching the little body parts develop, the kids begin to feel like these are their babies, but more importantly than the biology, they start to understand and intimately care for the Kenai and its surrounding habitat,” Romatz said.
Later in the year, the classroom fry will be returned to the Bear Creek Hatchery or released into landlocked lakes. Romatz said that seeing so much of a salmon’s life cycle firsthand hooks the children in a way that textbooks and educational films can’t do alone.
“They start to see salmon less as just food and more as a living organism that is an important part of their ecosystem,” she said. “That’s why we do this, why we come all the way down here to get the eggs with them. It connects the kids to the process. It’s different for them when they can touch and smell and breathe all this.”