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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Salmon in the Classroom Program - A Victim of Budget Cuts?

The Salmon in the Classroom programs have been a fixture of our elementary school curriculum for a couple generations now in the Puget Sound region. Educators sought to instill the natural interest, curiosity of kids and environmental values by providing experiential learning opportunities.
Scientists and students at UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science monitor salmon

The "Salmon in the Classroom" projects have been a yearly event that created excitement and anticipation of fullfilling a worthwhile goal for students. Kids participated actively, by feeding, checking water temperature and doing the final salmon fry releases into local creeks.

In Seattle, the largest watershed is Thornton Creek. It is salmonid habitat, with at least five species of salmon - coho, chinook, sockeye, cutthroat and even steelhead. Salmon fry releases by students have been a fixture in Thornton Creek and several of the other largest watersheds in the City.

But now sadly, the programs may be coming to a halt due to budget worries and water quality concerns. Typically, the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences hatchery has supplied teachers and classes, grades 1-6 with the eggs in carefully controlled programs.
"Eyed" salmon eggs from Issaquah Hatchery

Every year 40,000 schoolchildren in WA State have been introduced and participated in the lives of salmon. But now, WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) which manages the resource and which is facing the same drastic cuts every State Department faces, has had to eliminate the program as a result of the last special session of the Legislature. According to an article in Seattle Times WDFW Program Manager Christy Vassar says, 
"We are sorry to lose the program. Tens of thousands of young people learned about the natural world for the last 20 years, but these are extremely tough economic times, and all state agencies are required to cut back." 
Spawning salmon being "crowded" into pens to be sorted at hatchery
The funds had originally come from the federal government, but now the funds will have to be used elsewhere. The amount seems relatively small for a statewide program (my editorial judgement). Cutting the program will save $110,000 for this school year. It costs the schools nothing. Many of the schools have existing equipment which could still be used if it still functions if they were able to get the salmon eggs. But there is also another problem for the schools in the Thornton Creek Watershed such as Olympic Hills Elementary (in the Hamlin Creek Basin on Thornton Creek's North Branch).

According to those familiar with that local program, the Issaquah Hatchery has prohibited the classrooms in Seattle from releasing salmon (nor are they to receive the eggs for such a release) into Thornton Creek!

Thornton Creek and other urbanized watersheds have experience problems for spawning coho. There is a "pre-spawn mortality" problem which has been documented. This is likely due to stormwater runoff in these streams. The runoff is said to contain a toxic mix of sediments, petroleum based products and metals such as copper. The copper comes from brakepads from motor vehicles. The copper IS going to be phased out over the next few years, because a bill was passed last session to ban it within several years.

So, according to sources who know, the Issaquah Hatchery has been able to now put the kiebash on salmon releases in Thornton Creek. It appears that there is actual discrimination going on against our urban streams and our urban classrooms in effect!

In our opinion (Of Paramount Importance), this is a very bad policy for so many reasons.

First of all it's clear that urban school children are now going to be denied the experiential learning that past generations received and a first hand knowledge about salmon streams. This is very wrong educationally and culturally.

Second of all, the $110,000 seems like a large amount of money, but spread across the entire state it was actual an incredible bargain to provide this educational benefit that instilled the value of salmon and their habitat in 40,000 school children. This is a colossal budget misjudgement. What other statewide program offers so much tangible and hands-on scientific understanding to so many children for so little?

Third, why does the Issaquah Hatchery have jurisdiction over Seattle School Children and their families and over Seattle's largest watershed? This is where the taxpayers are in this state who provide the bulk of the tax dollars for Issaquah's watersheds. Seattle and Shoreline have been faithful participants in the WRIA8 (Water Resource Inventory Assessment for the Cedar/Lake WA Watershed).  And they have unselfishly provided funding to restore watersheds all throughout the basin, with little tangible benefit to our cities' watersheds, except for small programs like "Salmon in the Classroom".

What can be done? Tell your legislators. Tell your City and County Councilmembers.  Tell WDFW.

We have a voice and if we really still care about our salmon, and having a legacy for our kids and grandkids to remember what it was like to have salmon in our local streams, we can use our voices to make a difference!

Sure there are so many worthy programs being cut and this is just one more. But, it seems disproportionate to cut one of the few experiential programs that kids really get excited about, and one which actually costs so little.

Let's invest in our future. Invest in knowledge about the environment and our iconic salmon culture. How will kids really learn  about salmon if they are only seen in  history books? 

Oh wait! They're also cutting back on history too. If it's not on the WASL........ forget it! 

Just my 2 cents for salmon! 



  1. I am very disappointed to read about the cuts and proported discrimination that hurts our kids the most. Both of my kids were in the Room Nine Program (now the Room Nine Community School) from 1993 through 2000 and each participated in the raising of salmon through the UW and releasing at Paramount Park in Thornton Creek. The Room Nine Kids also participated in the creation of a Paramount Park Trail Guide, which enhanced the then newly revived park, and the kids' environmental education. This news of the cutbacks and shutting out the students from raising the salmon is very sad indeed. -Janis Trowbridge-Howes

  2. Very interesting, important and unfortunate news, Janet. It sounds like folks need to rethink, and get more clarity of what truly are their priorities. I can't think of anything more important than basics like salmon habitat health and history. I'm ready to join the battle to get these prioritized. History, not on the WASL, hmmmm, scary. I wonder what the reasoning is behind that. Our educational system- often a strange curiosity.

  3. Thanks for the comments Julie and Janis. I strongly recommend that folks who are concerned about this matter write their legislators, and councilmembers soon.

    I do not know any absolutes on WASL contents. Just general speculation about the lack of emphasis in our schools on history and science content and instead on the need to pass state wide tests.

    Hands on learning is well known to stick with students and it is tragic to lose these opportunities.

  4. The Basic Health Plan, Medicaid, and other essential public health services are being cut as well.

    Unfortunately in this economic climate no one is free from budget reductions. However, to snipe at one program over another does not serve to advance a dialogue forward positively.

  5. Dear Anonymous 7:04,
    Thanks for weighing in. Sometimes we "snipe" when injustice happens.
    This is one program that I happen to know about that should not be cut. Or some angels should step in to reactivate the program.

    Education should include a wide array of types on knowledge, not just "readin' and writin' and countin' " IMHO. But, oh wait! Kids aren't learning that either.

    So taking away a proven effective program that integrates the environment with the classroom which is already rare, is a bad choice. It also continues the myth that urban streams don't matter, even though that's where the taxpayers are.

    Yes there are plenty of bad choices being made in the budget, but not talking about any of it is also bad. This is my job, to point out things I think are Of Paramount Importance.

    Feel free to send me topics and stories you'd like to highlight.

  6. Dear Anonymous 7:04,

    Crisis tends to force BIG CHANGE.
    Economic and environmental crisis alerts us to many changes we must make.
    Some of that change will need include modifying priorities.

    If we just lame brain it with equal across the board percentage cuts, how is that we are working towards conscientious efforts towards the more positive outcomes we all desire?