by Kara Douglas
From the March 2015 edition of the Harpswell Anchor
Nina Beattie turns around in her seat and smiles. “We have 200 class pets,” she proclaims, pointing toward the corner of the classroom.
In the front of Megan Philips’s third grade room at Harpswell Community School (HCS) sits what looks like a large white styrofoam brick. But, open the door on the front end and a cold, underwater world comes to life.
Despite the fact that they come with a birth certificate, these are pets only in the most liberal of interpretations. The insulated tank contains about 200 Atlantic salmon eggs that Phillips and her students are tending until the hatched fry are old enough to be released into the Little River, a tributary of the Androscoggin, in May.
The eggs, which originated from the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery in Ellsworth were delivered to the classroom in mid-February by Neil Ward, a volunteer with an educational program called Fish Friends, administered by The Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Ward works with nine schools in the Midcoast region in an effort to educate kids about the endangered native fish while simultaneously attempting to bolster the population of salmon in Maine’s rivers.
“This is real, tangible science right in the kids’ backyard that they can wrap their heads around,” Ward enthusiastically declares. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
The students in Phillips’s class unhesitatingly agree.
“When they’re fully grown, they’ll be 3-5 feet long,” announces Matthew Brady, who then points to the tank. “Now, you can just see their eyes in the eggs.”
Eben LaRose adds, “When we release them, they’ll be 1-2 inches long!”
The boys produce a map of the Androscoggin River watershed and a poster diagramming the Atlantic salmon’s life cycle. Clearly, they’re hooked, as are the rest of the students who huddle around the tank and offer tidbits of newly learned salmon lore. This is just the first day.
“This makes it so much more real for them,” Phillips beams.
In addition to her own efforts to make this project a reality, Phillips has the support of several contributors, including HCS Parent-Teacher Organization enrichment coordinator Cristine Bachor, who first suggested the idea after learning about The Atlantic Salmon Federation.
While Bachor tracked down necessary equipment, including a tank and water chiller, Julia McLeod, an environmental educator and the Outreach Coordinator at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, helped align lesson plans with newly-developed science curriculum standards.
McLeod, who’s work is partly funded by a grant termed the Holbrook Education Initiative (offered by the Cundy’s Harbor-based Holbrook Community Foundation), will visit Phillip’s class every Monday for at least six weeks to deliver the Atlantic Salmon Foundation’s Fish Friends curriculum. She’ll then return to assist with the release of the fish later this spring.
Writes McLeod, “The intent is to make the release an educational experience by testing water quality to make sure it’s a good environment for the fish.”
A popular concept presently in this class is the possibility that some of the salmon will hatch with multiple heads or tails, a fact reported by no less than six students. They don’t yet understand why this phenomenon could occur, though one student reminds us that, “everyone is different and that includes salmon.”
Ward sheds light on the subject. As the wild population of Atlantic salmon declines, genetic diversity of the breeding population becomes further limited. Despite efforts at the hatcheries to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible, the species can carry gene mutations which are the result of closely related parent stock.
“Repeating the same genetics over and over again isn’t ideal for the species,” Ward explains. “That’s why, in addition to what we’re doing, it’s vital to maintain our wild population.”
Phillips poses a question to her class: “What did Mr. Ward say about the timing of the release once the salmon have hatched? Is an earlier or later release better for the salmon?”
Several students cluster around with responses, finally agreeing that early is best, “because fewer predators will have realized they’re there,” giving the fry a chance to camouflage themselves.
“During that first release, the river seems almost barren,” Ward explains. “But, it doesn’t take long for the predators to catch on. Before long all the crayfish and other organisms that eat salmon are out. In the tank, the eggs and fish are very visible, but we release them in the river and kids are always surprised at how quickly they become invisible, how quickly they camouflage in their new environment.”
In addition to their birth certificate, the eggs arrive with a special permit, allowing Phillips to house and handle a federally declared endangered species in her classroom.
Once abundant from New England through Maritime Canada and eastward to Iceland, Europe and northwestern Russia, habitat depletion has limited populations of the fish in all of it’s native range. The North American Atlantic salmon could historically be found in most major rivers north of the Hudson.
“There are currently predictions that within the next 20 years, the Androscoggin could mark the southernmost end of the Atlantic salmon range,” says Ward.
Asked what inspired her to initiate this project, Cristine Bachor replies, “Having spent time in Alaska, salmon are very close to my heart. Here on the eastern seaboard, our Atlantic salmon have been run out of our rivers. If we can instill in our children a love of salmon and reacquaint them with this incredible fish, then we’ll be moving forward.”
While some of the challenges the species has faced in the past— damage to water quality, dams on natal rivers—still spell trouble, Ward presents an even greater obstacle the salmon will have to overcome if they are to survive: warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, realities that no amount of fish stocking can mitigate.
“There are so many factors working against these fish that we don’t even know what all of them are,” Ward continues, “We can’t correct for the factors we don’t know exist.”
While there is still some evidence that a wild population of Atlantic salmon survives in the Androscoggin, many of the fish that return to spawn there are hatchery-raised. Even this is a relatively small population.
Like all anadromous fish, Atlantic salmon begin their life cycle in fresh water, where they spend one to six years developing, depending on water temperature and food availability, then head out to sea. Ward explains that in places like the Androscoggin, the trip to the ocean can happen within a day, despite the fact that the fish must adapt to the salinity and temperature changes such a transformation entails.
Once at sea, the salmon head toward Greenland, where they can spend a year or more before returning to their river of origin to spawn.
According to Ward, all fish spawning up the Androscoggin are trapped at the Fort Andross dam’s fish ladder in Brunswick, where a count is made, scientific data is collected and a scale sample is used to determine whether each fish is of wild or hatchery origin.
Atlantic salmon differ in significant ways from species native to the Pacific coast. One of the most significant differences lies in their ability to spawn more than once. Though most species of salmon die after spawning, Atlantic salmon will begin the return trek to Greenland.
For now, 200 eggs lie dormant in a 6 degree Celsius tank of fresh water in Phillips’s classroom. Ward reports that when he dropped them off, they were 41.6% developed – as Matthew Brady pointed out, just enough to see their eyes. And in that state they will remain until volunteers detect a rise in water temperature and signal Philips to allow her tank to incrementally warm.
As the water temperature rises, development will continue. A micro-environment of water and gravel will burst with the life of 200 tiny ambassadors of a species on the brink and one class’s contribution to their continuation.