Before practice Thursday at Garfield Elementary in the Yakima area, several members of Yakima Music en Acción paused to watch Principal Steve Brownlow scoop shiny little fish out of a big tank.
Brownlow was moving the chinook salmon fry, which arrived at the school early this year as eggs from the Priest Rapids Hatchery, into a tall orange-and-white cooler so they could be released in Ahtanum Creek in Union Gap.
Cradling their instruments, the youth orchestra members listened as Brownlow talked about why they needed to load, drive and release the fish efficiently and quickly. It was time for the little fish, which have grown up in the 55-gallon tank in a common area near the school entrance, to graduate to a much bigger world.
“Bye-bye, fishies,” the musicians said as they headed into the library to tune up.
Salmon in the Classroom is part of the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program. The Garfield tank is one of 100 in schools throughout Central Washington, and each tank gets around 250 salmon eggs.
Bruce Whitmore, a longtime program volunteer who has cared for the Garfield salmon and other batches, uses his time to teach students about the life cycle of the fish and related environmental issues.
“Sometimes kids will ask, ‘Can I take one of these home?’ ” said Whitmore, dubbed the Salmon Man by the children.
As he helped Brownlow move the fish into the cooler, Whitmore beamed at their vitality and numbers. Though they’re little, only an inch or two, they zipped through the 57-degree water and hid as best they could to avoid the dip nets.
“I might lose 10 to 15 eggs,” Whitmore said. “We only lost three eggs during the incubation period and only seven hatched fish in the fry cycle. In nature the losses would be as high as 90 percent just in this early stage before migration.”
Like Whitmore, Brownlow is an old hand when it comes to new salmon. He efficiently bailed out bowls of water to concentrate the fish in the tank before moving them. In his second year at Garfield, Brownlow previously was principal at Nob Hill Elementary and had salmon there for several years.
“This year’s probably been the best batch we’ve had,” Brownlow said.
After arriving with the fish at Fullbright Park early Thursday evening, Brownlow and Whitmore spoke to about 20 adults and children who gathered to help. Brownlow, wearing a tie with a pattern of minnows and sharks, dipped paper cups into the cooler to collect a few fish for children to take to the creek, which was running high.
Abigail Carreon Carrillo, 7, released several cups of fish. “There they are! Do you see them?” Whitmore said in helping Abigail, a first-grader at Garfield. “They’ll wander around for a couple hours to get used to the place.”
Her parents, Guadalupe Carrillo and Armando Carreon, smiled broadly at her enthusiasm, taking photos and video.
“I think it’s great for the kids,” her mother said. “And she’s so excited. She always told me (about the fish); first, when the eggs came to the school, and when they were born, she was so excited.
“She did it last year, too,” she added.
If they’re smart and lucky, these fish will end up much bigger. Chinook are the largest Pacific salmon stock and typically grow to 2 to 3 feet long and 10 to 50 pounds, but they can reach nearly 5 feet long and weigh as much as 130 pounds.
“They’ll hang out here and acclimate or memorize the scent of the river so they know where to return to. That will take about a year, nine months,” said Tiffany Bishop, executive director of the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program. “Next spring, next year with the flood events, they’ll go out with the river current, out to the mouth of the Columbia River.
“The vast majority will go up the coast of Alaska. They’ll spend anywhere from two to three years or so, sometimes four, out in the ocean eating, then return to us.”
Noting that fisheries’ releases are much larger than those of schools, Bishop stressed that Salmon in the Classroom efforts yield something even more precious by changing students’ attitudes toward the environment and its stewardship.
“It becomes their fishes’ river and their river, too. It’s also someplace that their fish live,” she said. “Just that change in mentality, increasing caring, is huge.”
Whitmore, who strives “to educate the child and engage the culture,” said children are learning about local, regional and global responsibility for the fishery’s health. Their education starts small, with the fish eggs and fry, and gets much bigger with a goal of comprehensive understanding of where humans are part of the bigger scheme of life on Earth.
They learn to care about their world, Whitmore said.
“These ideas go way beyond a bucket of fish being released,” he said.