Adopt-a-Salmon Turns Kids Into "Parents," Conservationists

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Irving has been using the Adopt-a-Salmon Family program for four years, and his school has participated for eight.

"It's really kind of the keystone of what we do in the classroom in science, and it integrates into the other subjects as well," Irving continued. USFWS "has a whole curriculum guide that goes with Adopt-a-Salmon, and we have a theme each year throughout the core classes, like human impact on the watershed. So in social studies they will study those human impacts, in language arts they might write some stories."

Other activities range from salmon role-playing games to spawning-cycle poetry.

In the spring each student gets his or her own cup and releases an individual fish into the water.

The effort is a part of an ongoing larger effort by USFWS and various state agencies to restore salmon populations to New England waters.

Facing Daunting Odds

Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) once thrived in New England's rivers. The fish essentially disappeared from much of their native habitat by the mid 1800s, due to overfishing, pollution, and the construction of dams. Numerous dams prevented them from returning from the ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds.

Millions of dollars have been spent over the last two decades in an effort to restore the silver leapers to rivers throughout their traditional New England range. But today wild Atlantic salmon are reported at historic lows. Each fish faces daunting odds.

A typical pair of salmon may lay about 7,500 eggs, but 3,000 may never hatch. Those that hatch often become food for birds and other fish. Perhaps only 50 reach the ocean as smolts—young salmon that have taken on the characteristic silvery color—about two years later.

Human hazards, such as pollution and dams that continue to block migration, lengthen the odds—but the dangers don't diminish the value of the Adopt-a-Salmon program, supporters say.

"I think of it as river stewardship," Smithwood said. "When you create a healthy place for salmon, you create healthy ecosystems for humans, you preserve drinking water without contaminants, and you allow animals to complete their life cycles."

While salmon are the stars, many other fish, like herring, lamprey, and shad, are benefiting from the improving watersheds—and so are humans.

"Anyone my age that grew up near the Merrimack or Nashua Rivers—30 years ago the Nashua River was a cesspool. Nobody would even think of canoeing down the Nashua River, you wouldn't go near the river. Now it's returning to the way it was 150 years ago," Smithwood said.

Future Dependent on Funding

The program is cost-effective for schools. About a thousand dollars buys the tank and requisite equipment, including a "chiller" to keep the salmon eggs at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius)—and to incrementally adjust crucial water temperatures throughout the growing process.

The program provides schools with new salmon each year free of charge.

A dozen volunteers drive the program, steered by May and Smithwood. In addition to his many other hatchery responsibilities, Smithwood has taken on the job formerly done by a full-time Adopt-a-Salmon staff person. Yet even with a low-cost skeleton crew, Adopt-a-Salmon Family's future may be in doubt.

Budget cuts threaten to close the Nashua hatchery outright, which could have devastating effects on the program as well as on the ongoing salmon restoration efforts in the Merrimack River watershed.

"We're in a critical stage right now," McKeon said. "A funding crisis exists with respect to federal budgets and support of hatchery services."

"The Nashua hatchery station has two people working in a four-person station, and if we don't get some assistance in terms of funding, we might be closing this facility," he said.

The Adopt-a-Salmon Family "parents" think closing the facility would be a mistake, and they've been writing their elected officials to let them know.

"We can learn more about these creatures, their habitats and life cycle, if we can care for them and examine them," wrote one Dublin, New Hampshire, third grader. "If you cut this program we will have to go back to studybooks to learn about these things. Going back to books will limit our understanding of these creatures."

For more salmon news, scroll down

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