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Salmon Study Spawns Learning
Students use special glasses to simulate how waters color ends up camouflaging brightly colored salmon eggs against the gravel of the river bottom in this experiment alongside the Stanislaus River recently. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader



Chinook salmon returning to spawn in the Stanislaus River at the Knights Ferry recreation area offers an opportunity for Oakdale students to learn firsthand about the habitat and life cycle of the native fish.

For four days in November, Oakdale Joint Unified School District salmon teacher Krista Smith and a dedicated group of “salmon guide” volunteers returned to that spot along the Stanislaus River to lead the all the district’s fourth graders in field studies and to watch the salmon spawn as part of their state standards salmon unit.

Oakdale’s 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 to participate in the salmon field study.

The kids arrived before 9 a.m. to start their studies and went through a series of rotations, visiting stations to engage in activities to learn more about the salmon and their habitat.

“We have two small activities that have been great fun… One activity mimics what fish are able to see underwater, and the second is a surface tension experiment/demonstration to explain how the Water Strider insect is able to ‘walk on water,’” Smith said.

Students also peered through microscopes and viewers at the various insects that the young salmon fry eat. They also played the salmon game – where students pretend to be migrating salmon to show them the obstacles that salmon face as they swim upstream to spawn. The students attempted to navigate through a turning jump rope to mimic a turbine, tried to escape predators and avoid fishermen, and then did the broad jump to simulate jumping the waterfalls. In one group of 35 students on Nov. 15, there were no “surviving” salmon.

Park Ranger Norm Winchester drove home the point, telling them that, on average, only two out of 5,000 salmon make it all the way to spawn.

“You can see how hard it is for the fish in real life to do what they do,” Winchester said.

Other 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. The students were also led in a nature trail walk to learn about the ecology of the area. On the trail, they learn how salmon decompose or get eaten by animals, as well as about different plants and other animals that live near or along the river. Smith reported that the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife left several Chinook carcasses on the riverside after they were counted for the students to view up close. The fourth graders visited the museum to learn from the historical displays and watched the Stanislaus River educational movie. From a perch on the Knights Ferry bridge, the kids also watched the salmon as they spawned below.

“Looks like we are running a little behind last year,” Smith noted, referring to Fishbio’s count of the annual fall-run Chinook passage at the Stanislaus River weir.

According to the table from Fishbio, approximately 4,350 salmon had been counted at the Stanislaus weir near the peak of this year’s run. Last year was one of the best salmon runs in several years on the Stanislaus with 5,882 counted near the peak of run and a season total of more than 7,200.

“I know, historically, Nov. 15 is the peak of the run; the counts ramp up and ramp down from that date,” Smith said.

Leading up to the salmon field study, the students spent time in the classroom learning about the salmon life cycle, reasons why salmon populations rise and fall, and the importance of dead salmon in the environment. Smith spent time teaching in the fourth grade classes and teachers also did their own salmon studies in the classroom.

The final part of the salmon project includes each school having a redd, or nest, of salmon eggs that will grow into fry salmon in the classroom. The fourth graders make observations about how the salmon grow from eggs, to alevin, to fry. They also record the different stages and their observations about the salmon’s appearance, death rates, and water temperature. Once the fry reach a certain size – about two inches – around February or March, the students will release them into the Stanislaus River from where they will eventually make their way to the Pacific Ocean and then return to spawn.