Not every 16-year-old kid knows how to work with spawning salmon, incubate a freshwater fish egg, rear the juveniles and then release them into a river or bay.
Yet quite a large number of teenagers in Clatsop County have learned exactly that in the past several decades thanks to hatchery programs at both Astoria and Warrenton high schools.
In these programs, science isn’t found only in textbooks, but in real-life examples.
“A lot of the kids are really craving that. …They want to see and experience it,” said Lee Cain, a science teacher at Astoria High School. “Once they get up close and personal with living organisms, a lot of kids are really hooked.”
Cain teaches the aquatic biology program at Astoria High.
The program began on a much smaller scale in the early 1970s, when teacher Eldon Korpela began working with students to rear salmon eggs in buckets, Cain said.
Now the program has a classroom, a data lab, a research lab and a wet lab, as well as tanks and ponds.
Students can take semester-long fisheries biology and marine biology classes.
They learn basic salmonid biology and laboratory procedures, while working with salmon eggs and young fish. In the second class, they study saltwater fish biology, as well as continue working on freshwater fish culture.
Numerous field trips give them the opportunity to help with salmon spawning and to study habitats.
In a more-advanced, year-long fisheries technology class, they spend additional time on fish culture, as well as hatchery maintenance, peer tutoring and work experience in hatcheries and streams.
About 45 to 60 students are enrolled in the classes each year. They successfully release about 20,000 Chinook and Coho salmon each year.
These are especially relevant lessons in a community where fisheries are a key economic driver.
Warrenton High School’s hatchery program had existed for decades when budget cuts shut it down in 2004, said science teacher Steve Porter.
Then, more than a decade ago, an ambitious student decided to try to make restarting the hatchery the focus of his work in a project-based class, Porter said.
That student, Henry Balensifer, founded a nonprofit organization to rebuild the hatchery and the program, getting assistance and donations from government officials and local businesses. The new facility uses recycled rainwater collected on site.
Warrenton High School releases about 20,000 fish – Chinook and Coho salmon and Steelhead -into the Skipanon River each spring.
Students can enroll in a two-year program that focuses on fish morphology, water quality, habitats and wetlands. They get hands-on experience at local hatcheries, and incubate, hatch, care for and study the developing fish through the school year.
Those who complete both years can become part of a leadership team, taking on greater responsibility and gaining experience in recording data, writing reports, giving presentations and hatchery work.
In all, the program typically has 20 to 24 students enrolled.
The program is ahead of the curve in applying STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) principles, Porter said.
“That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time,” Porter said.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife renews the high schools’ salmon propagation applications every five years, supplying eggs and providing technical assistance to the otherwise self-supported programs.
Education programs such as these may be grooming future biologists, said Ron Rehn, a STEP biologist based in Tillamook, but the primary benefit is that education is one of the best ways to protect fish, wildlife and habitat now and in the future.
“They’re not just teaching them how to grow and feed fish, it’s the whole gamut as far as water quality needs, habitat, and then there’s the technology side behind that, too,” Rehn said.