By Krizelle Solidum

On June 19, Skagway Traditional Council (STC), in partnership with Fish and Game and Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition (SAWC), loaded a cooler full of salmon onto Alaska Seaplanes. The fry, reared by students in a tank at Skagway School, were headed back to Salmon Creek in Juneau, where the eggs originated.

Taiya Inlet Watershed Council (TIWC) began its Salmon in the Classroom Program in 2012 to “improve the protection and health of the Skagway and Taiya River watersheds through education, communication research and restoration,” according to STC partnered with TIWC and the SAWC to bring salmon eggs to Skagway School for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Coho fry from Salmon in the Classroom gather in their own school at Skagway School.

Ideally, program leaders would find a spawning pair from a local river. Milk would be taken from the male and eggs from the female, combined, and placed in a tank at the school.

In this case, the eggs were brought to Skagway from the Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery in Juneau because a spawning pair of salmon could not be found in Pullen Creek last year. 

 Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade cared for over 380 coho salmon fry in a 30-gallon tank located in a busy hallway at Skagway School.

“The fifth graders were getting into the tank and measuring water quality parameters, temperature pH and nitrogen levels,” said Reuben Cash, environmental coordinator for STC.

This is the first time since the existence of the program that salmon were released back into their home water. A part of Juneau’s Salmon Creek was identified as suitable because of its ‘low slope,’ meaning it has plenty of pools of cold water giving the salmon a better chance at survival. 

One concern Cash has for the released fry is they will not know how to fend for themselves since they are used to being fed artificial food provided by the Department of Fish and Game, through an auto feeder.

In addition, the water temperature of the creek where the salmon were released is significantly different from the school tank. To combat this, Cash and TIWC tried to replicate the creek temperature in the tank.

The alternative to placing the fish back into the creek was euthanizing them, an option Cash didn’t like. So, the team worked together to find a solution. In the end, the fish were loaded onto a small plane for the 45-minute journey to their birth home. Reuben called them “flying fish.”

At the end of the Salmon in the Classroom curriculum, students learned about different human influences on salmon habitats, such as riparian-zone restoration, which is the ecological restoration of riparian-zone habitats of streams, rivers, springs and lakes.

They also learned the importance of salmon for the state and economy. The program helped students understand Southeast’s unique geography and what it means to live in a coastal area.

Salmon in the Classroom exposed students to different career fields such as fishing, managing the watershed and biology, said Skagway School Superintendent Joshua Coughran.

“Kids learn about the salmon life cycle and then they can release them locally. My kids talk about how excited they are about the program,” Coughran said.

Coho fry from Salmon in the Classroom gather in their own school at Skagway School.