Times Record (Brunswick, ME)

West Bath second graders hatch and release Atlantic salmon, learn about species conservation

Hannah LeClaire

May 16, 2019
WEST BATH, ME — Some second grade classes may have a pet hamster or hatch chicks in an incubator, but in Kelsey Marco’s class at West Bath School, students this year had more unusual classroom pets: 120 Atlantic Salmon.

The class received 200 salmon eggs in February from a hatchery in Ellsworth through Fish Friends, a program of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. The students watched them grow from eggs to fry, the third stage of about six in an Atlantic Salmon’s life (egg, alevin, fry, parr, smolt and adult.). They released the little fish, which 8-year-old Cooper Snell said were a little smaller than his pinky, last week at Jillson’s Farm in Sabattus where they will hopefully grow and migrate to saltwater to feed and mature before returning to freshwater to spawn.

“In Maine we have the last wild Atlantic Salmon,” said Hazel Stark, Fish Friends coordinator. “To have and take care of an endangered species in the classroom” is a rare opportunity, and shows kids that “Maine is special in that way,” she said.

The program started in 1992 to help children get involved with Atlantic Salmon, and this year more than 90 Maine schools participated.

Atlantic salmon, an endangered species, are vulnerable to threats such as dams, overfishing and pollution, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The Portland Press Herald reported in 2016 that restoration efforts could take another 75 years.

It is important to make sure the fish are not lost, Stark said.

“After extensive dam removals and persistent conservation stocking, wild Atlantic salmon returns to the Gulf of Maine have stabilized, although at very low numbers,” according to data from the Atlantic Salmon Federation. In 2017, 1,041 adult Atlantic salmon returned to Maine to spawn, representing a 400 fish increase over 2016, but still a long way off from the 100,000 that returned to the Penobscot River alone in the 19th century.

On average, a wild Atlantic Salmon has a one in 1,000 chance of making it to adulthood, Stark said, but the roughly 10,000 to 20,000 that are released through the Fish Friends program have somewhat greater odds of survival. Since the fish are raised in tanks up until the fry stage, they have a better chance than eggs in the wild. These salmon have anywhere between a one to 100 and a one to 1,000 chance, Stark said.

Cooper and Katie are hopeful that the fish they raised will make it.

Marco’s classes have been growing salmon as for the last three years as part of the Fish Friends program in an effort to learn more about species conservation and the environment. The class watched the eggs grow from February to May.

Salmon eggs are relatively low maintenance. They do not need to be fed because a yolk sack keeps them nourished, which Katie Rand, 8, said was a surprise to her.

“I thought their parents fed them,” she said, and was concerned at first when they received the eggs but no parents. Cooper, on the other hand, was surprised to learn that not all salmon die after spawning: Atlantic salmon, unlike Pacific salmon, stick around for a while to keep their eggs safe from predators and are able to repeat the mating cycle for years.

While they do not need to be fed, the eggs need to be kept cool in a tank chiller provided by Fish Friends. According to Marco, her tank malfunctioned a few times and, as a result, the eggs hatched a week earlier than expected.

The kids always look forward to letting the fish go, Marco said, although Katie said she was “sad they’re gone.”

“Most people, unless they have fishermen in their families, don’t interact with fish very much,” Stark said, and working with these fish and learning about their life cycles can ultimately help teach them that small actions can have impacts on the environment.

The fish left a lasting impression on Cooper and Katie, who both asked that people be more mindful of salmon fishing.

“People should watch out for how many fish they catch,” Katie said.

“Stop fishing salmon just to eat,” Cooper said. “Fish less so that the population will grow instead of depleting.”



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