I crouched down with my camera ready to capture the moment of release, but rather than the right out of the gate scene I expected, the fish remained still. Familiarity with their rearing environment and their schooling behavior both support the (somewhat anticlimactic) slow reaction of the smolts to realize their opportunity to enter into the lower Elwha River where they will begin their migration to the ocean. It would be several hours before the majority of the fish would leave, under the cover of darkness and after they had acclimated to the channel.
Since it began its operations in 2011, the House of Salmon (HOS) hatchery has supported the Elwha River Fisheries and Ecosystem Restoration Act (EREFRA)- Public Law 102-495, passed by Congress in 1992, by propagating mainly Coho salmon and Steelhead. This is the first year the HOS has also raised Chinook salmon, releasing 50,000 fish synchronously with Chinook smolts raised by the state hatchery just one mile upriver. HOS Hatchery Manager Robert Blankenship is proud that the Tribe will now be supporting the recovery of the species that was historically the pride of the Elwha River, the so-called ‘Kings’ that would often return to the river weighing over a hundred pounds each and nourish the land and its people.
For Robert and his team, sharing about their work is important. At an LEKT community dinner event hosted by the Natural Resources department in April, they announced the new Chinook rearing program to tribal members. But they also want people to feel welcome to come and visit the facility, to see the process firsthand.
On June 13th, a bus full of fourth graders were eager to return to the House of Salmon. Dry Creek (now Elementary) School has provided classroom education to many generations of Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal youth and youth of the Port Angeles community. Each year, fourth graders learn about salmon as a part of their curriculum; at Dry Creek, this has expanded to include hands-on, place-based activities.
Last Fall, two classes took a field trip to the House of Salmon hatchery, where they observed Coho eggs incubating and toured the facility to learn about the process of raising them. Robert would send photo updates to the teachers over the next few weeks of a small batch of developing fish that one of the classes would later ‘adopt’ to raise in their classroom aquarium.
After having fed, cared for and followed along with their growth first-hand, the students had even named some individual fish that they had come to release into the river for the next stage of their life cycles. In addition to the smolts they had raised in the classroom, students also released other Coho from the same collection of eggs they had observed on their first visit that had been raised at the hatchery.
Next year, the teachers hope to have a more advanced aquarium system that can include gravel and replicate the ideal habitat for eggs, so the students can observe the earlier stages of the salmon life cycle, such as the ‘alevin’ – referring to when the fish still have the egg yolk attached to their bodies. In a few years, when the first Chinook released by the hatchery this year return to the river as adults, perhaps future Dry Creek elementary students will become the first to raise Elwha Kings in the classroom and continue to support the recovery of the ecosystem as well as human connections to it.
By: Chelsea Behymer, Elwha Science Outreach Coordinator
Photos by: Chelsea Behymer & Raymond Moses