Students from central and southern Kenai Peninsula schools gathered at the Anchor River Friday to learn about the salmon life cycle. This was the kick-off to the Salmon in the Classroom program. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District partners with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to teach kids about one of the state’s most valuable resources.
About 40 kids looked on Friday morning as Fishery Biologist Jenny Cope slit the belly of a female fish. She explained to the students that almost 2,000 eggs were inside the fish. Next, one of Cope’s brave assistants from the crowd added the next ingredient in the egg fertilization process using a male fish. Cope said the mixture needed one last thing.
“I think we have a milkshake, but I don’t think they’re fertilized. Coho salmon don’t just get up out of the creek and come up to a table and spawn, they’re spawning in the river where there’s water,” she said.
She then added water from the river. The kids took some eggs back with them to their classrooms to watch them mature. Part of Cope’s presentation to the students was explaining what they will see during that process.
“At this stage, the eggs are very, very fragile. Now when you take your cup of eggs back to the classroom, you’re going to want to be very careful with them,” she said.
Cope said the next stage is called “eyed-egg.” Next month the kids will likely begin seeing two little black dots appear.
“They’ll keep moving around in their egg. And if you look closely in their aquarium you can kind of see them bouncing around a little bit,” she said.
Soon enough that little guy squirming around inside the egg will bust free and bring on the next stage: Alvin. Cope explained that this is an exciting time in the fish’s life cycle because you get to see the heart pumping and the digestive system forming. Even the spine begins to form and is visible.
“And if you’re lucky, maybe your teachers will take one out and put it under a microscope for you to see all the details,” she said.
Next up is the “fry” stage. And that’s when these little fish will leave the comfort of the classroom and venture out on their own.
“So in May, you’ll have fry that you get to release in one of our approved lakes,” she said.
Bill Vedders is a third grade teacher at K-Beach Elementary in Soldotna.
“Salmon is such an important part of life on the peninsula that we try to get an early appreciation of what’s involved and how they can protect the resource,” he said. “The kids are the future and if they can take care of the resource for their generation and then pass it on… to keep it as it always has been.”
Vedders said proximity to salmon doesn’t always mean the kids are knowledgeable about it.
“Maybe they’re not from a sportfishing family or a commercial-fishing family, so they don’t really get to see salmon other than… on the dinner table. We live so close to this incredible resource and a lot of kids never really get to experience it,” he said.
K-Beach student Fiona Wolf was one of dozen or so kids whose hands shot up each time Cope asked a question. She said she enjoyed the presentation; for the most part.
“I liked it a lot… except for the part where they dissected the fish. That part was really weird,” she said.
Cope and other fishery biologists on the peninsula will be heading into classrooms throughout the school year to do salmon dissections. Kids also will have a chance to go ice-fishing with Cope in the winter, and then in the spring the students will have the annual “Salmon Celebration.” The program all leads up to that moment when the fry are released and continue growing before they wind up, as Vedders said, on the dinner plate.