Since 2007, Florence area third graders have learned about the spawning cycle of wild steelhead from STEP volunteers. The classroom is the Whitaker Fish trap, which sits a few hundred feet from the Siuslaw River that feeds into the Pacific Ocean.
Students study not only the steelhead life cycle, but also steelhead anatomy, stream ecology and how steelhead populations positively affect local flora and fauna.
The students watch as full-grown steelhead are separated one-at-a-time. The wild fish are released up-stream from the trap to spawn naturally. The hatchery-raised fish are marked, milked of their eggs and milt, then released downstream. This process ensures that only wild steelhead spawn above the trap in Whitaker Creek.
After an anatomy lesson for the students, the steelhead carcass is put back into the stream, just as members of the Siuslaw Tribe have done for generations. Then, the fish become part of the food web again, completing the steelhead lifecycle.
Jim Grano, STEP trip coordinator, explained, “The insects feed on the carcass and the juvenile fish feed on the insects. Raccoons or bears might drag the carcass into the forest, eat it, then fertilize trees with their scat.”
Scientific data shows just how important returning carcasses to the stream is to the continued life-cycle of steelhead. “We actually have proof that trees grow better near salmon streams,” noted Grano.