Woodstock fifth-graders are fish foster parents
For the past seven weeks, the fifth-graders at the Woodstock Elementary School have been preparing to become foster parents to some 200 Atlantic salmon.
In their classroom, in a 20-gallon aquarium with water kept precisely at 35 degrees, are pea-sized eggs of the endangered fish.
The class is participating in a program of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, which seeks to preserve the species and educate the public about it. Fifty-eight schools across Maine are taking part in the egg program.
The Woodstock kids received their eggs in early February, from a hatchery in Bar Harbor. They had to obtain a special permit for the project through the Maine Department of Marine Resources. (They even have an official birth certificate for their brood.)
Atlantic Salmon have declined for several reasons, among them of pollution in the rivers where they spawn; dams that prevent them from returning to their spawning grounds; and overfishing in the North Atlantic off Greenland, where the adult fish live and where it is still legal to catch them. ASF hopes to help give the salmon a chance to survive as a species by populating the rivers where they begin life.
The eggs are expected to hatch in April, and in May the pupils will release the fry into the Androscoggin River, below Rumford Falls.
“I’m surprised how much they have developed since we got them,” said Eli Cowles.
“About 80 percent of them hatch,” said Morgan Prentice.
When they do, the kids learned, they can’t feed them. In order for the fish to know to return as adults to the Androscoggin to spawn, they must have their first meal in the waters to which they will return.
The kids also learned that since the 1980s, the estimated number of salmon in the wild has declined from 4 million to 86,000.
“The rivers were dirty,” said Abby Mink. “The fish are a sign of clean water.”
Teacher Tonya Prentice said older residents along the Androscoggin River can remember catching the salmon in the river and tributary streams 40 or 50 years ago.
A couple of weeks ago, the class got a closer look at their eggs when SAD 44 Technology Education Technician Gary Inman came to visit with a microscope.
“You could see the gills moving,” said Payton Abbott.
Also visible was the yolk, which feeds the developing fish.
As the eggs continue to grow, the class slowly raises the water temperature to match the anticipated spring temperature in the river. They receive temperature updates from ASF.
Other classes at WES are also taking advantage of the salmons’ presence to study them, learning about their habitat and life cycle.
When released below the dam in Rumford, the fish that survive will live there for two or three years before swimming downstream to the ocean.
Adults, said Eli, “can be up to 12 or 13 pounds and three feet long, and weigh 30 pounds.”
The kids, some of them fishermen, hope one day to see the adult salmon in the Androscoggin.
When these fifth-graders are done with the project, the aquarium, temperature controls and other equipment will remain at WES.
It was all purchased by the PTA, and will be available for future classes of pupils who also want to become fish foster parents.