The number of Chinook salmon returning to spawn in the Stanislaus River at the Knights Ferry recreation area appears to be one of the best in several years. Fourth graders in the Oakdale Joint Unified School District recently witnessed the spawning activity and did field studies as part of their state standards salmon unit.
“There are lots of fish. Great numbers,” said district salmon teacher Krista Smith. “This is the best since 2003, I think.”
She added that she didn’t know what the reason was for the greater numbers but said she’s looking forward to finding out.
Smith organized and reproduced the salmon field study event on four different days for each Oakdale elementary school’s fourth graders with help from her nine “salmon guides” – volunteers who “migrate” to the river every year “just like the salmon,” she said, to help with the salmon studies.
The four elementary schools – Magnolia, Sierra View, Cloverland, and Fair Oaks – sent each of their fourth grade classes, with financial support from Oakdale Irrigation District, to Knights Ferry over the past several days to participate in the salmon field study.
At the salmon day, stations were set up where students rotated in groups to learn about different aspects of the salmon journey. The stations included the scent trail, where students smelled scents in a jar and compared them to other jar scents along a “river system trail” to simulate how the salmon use their own homing system to find their way back to the river of their birth to spawn. Then there was the salmon obstacle course, which was to show the students the impediments that salmon face as they swim upstream to spawn. With this, the students went through a jump rope that served as a “turbine,” tried to get around predators including other fish, birds of prey, and coyotes, avoided fishermen, and made long jumps. At the end of the course, out of the large groups only one or two “survived” to spawn. There was also a nature trail walk to learn about the ecology of the area. Smith noted that on the trail, they focused on how salmon decompose or get eaten by animals, how that turns to scat, and how it all figures into part of the ecosystem. Additionally, the fourth graders took part in an insect study with microscopes and viewers to see what the salmon fry eat, they visited the museum to learn from the historical displays, watched the Stanislaus River educational movie, and, of course, viewed the salmon spawn below from the Knights Ferry bridge.
Smith reported that she also had support from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, wherein several Chinook carcasses were left on the riverside for the students to view. She added that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) also provided fun temporary stick-on salmon tattoos for the kids.
Leading up to the salmon day, the students spent time in the classroom, beginning around mid-October learning about the salmon life cycle, the different reasons why salmon numbers go down, the importance of dead salmon in the environment, and more. Smith spent two days in each fourth grade class in the district teaching these topics. The teachers also conducted salmon studies on their own in class.
Cloverland Elementary School fourth grade teacher Christina Carmelich said that in her class they watched a salmon life cycle video, filled out fact sheets, made a salmon accordion-style foldout booklet where they drew pictures of the salmon life cycle and wrote three facts on each slide in the booklet.
Carmelich said one of the most exciting parts is still to come. The final part of the salmon project includes each school raising a redd, or nest, of salmon eggs into fry salmon in the classroom. Carmelich will host the salmon tank in her classroom at Cloverland and said they’ll receive the redd in January. The other Cloverland fourth grade classes will tour through her room to observe the salmon as they grow from eggs, to alevin, to fry and they will record the different stages, making observations about the salmon’s appearance, death rates, water temperature, and such. Carmelich added that once the fry reach a certain size – about two inches – around February or March, the students will release them into the Stanislaus River.