Dance of the Salmon
by Anne Minard
In a national debate over how to save declining salmon and steelhead populations, there has been a lot of rhetoric.
And there has been plenty of finger-pointing. It might be the fault of the four dams on Washington's lower Snake River. It could be timber, agriculture, terns, and sea lions. It could be ocean conditions beyond human control.
In the midst of all that, scores of Sho-Ban High School students are working on a project called Dance of the Salmon. They are abandoning words in favor of action and are raising fish eggs that could help boost salmon and steelhead numbers returning to central Idaho's rivers.
For about five years, the federal office of Naval Research has granted the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes about $150,000 a year for research projects like Dance of the Salmon. The Sawtooth Fish Hatchery has provided hundreds of thousands of eggs from its own migratory runs.
Ed Galindo, a science teacher at Fort Hall's Sho-Ban High School, and Ben Rinehart, a retiring hydropower dam engineer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, lead summer-long hands-on camps for students who get class credit and modest stipends to help raise salmon and steelhead eggs and release them into rivers.
Each year the season begins with a week-long girls camp, then a week-long boys camp when the students obtain steelhead eggs and load up streamside incubators they have built from old refrigerators.
Every weekend for the rest of the summer, smaller groups of students will take trips to check on the developing fry. In the fall, students will raise chinook salmon eggs in the same streams.
On the recent Monday of the girls camp, Galindo told 10 participants that they were in an outdoor classroom "where the ancestors were and are and hopefully will be."
The students most important responsibility, Galindo asserts, is the fish. No sooner did he mention the fish at the camp introduction than Alana Baldwin, the only student veteran on the project, spoke up.
"If we don't have salmon, we don't have our treaty," she said.
The students are learning career-oriented science in Dance of the Salmon that rivals hands-on albs in college biology. But Baldwin's comment is aligned with a deeper motivation Galindo hopes the students will feel. He tells the students to take their roles personally.
"You are responsible for little babies," he tells each of them.
The notion of personal involvement has taken hold of the camp and its mentors. Galindo works with a team of adults who appear singular in their focus on the children.
Linda Jay drove a bus for original Dance of the Salmon trips to research the fish all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River. She recalls the wide-eyed excitement of students seeing the ocean for the first time. In the field, she is dubbed the camp mom. She makes meals and, if asked, tells the students stories about her own experiences with salmon and steelhead.
"Me and my brothers used to stand in the river. They'd tell us, 'Don't let the salmon go by.' I remember letting some go by. They were like torpedoes. They'd go right through your legs."
During some of the camps, Jay's father, a tribal elder, has visited to pass on campfire stories according to the tribes' oral tradition.
Rinehart too has gotten hooked on the spirit of personal involvement at the camp. The first year of the project, he stayed two days. Since then, he has returned all summer, every summer, to help foster a learning experience he deems unique. Last year, he bought a camper and he now parks at the campsite to guard it between groups of students.
"We're working in a wide-open space, we're working together," he says. "The salmon mean something then. They take it to heart and they learn."
Even as the students' raincoats rustled and they rubbed their hands together against the cold, Galindo and his team focused on keeping them engaged. Each is expected to demonstrate they can test the water's level of acidity, nitrogen and oxygen content on the first afternoon in camp.
Rain or shine, they have to practice because their success - and the survival of 53,000 donated steelhead eggs - is dependent upon their ability to perform.
The students, and older classes before them, have built the mainstays of the project _ old thrown-out refrigerators that have been remade into incubators for fish eggs. They have pieced together information from many of their subjects, including ones they might not otherwise have had to learn for a few years. They have scratched out the math and sketched the layouts of their designs.
They have thought through the physics to plan about five inches of water that constantly moves over the eggs, providing fresh oxygen and removing sediments and nutrient waste. They have learned about the biological dangers of whirling disease and other pathogens like fungi that can damage or kill the eggs as they grow.
Due to some unfortunate mistakes they have learned to use pipes to plug in the old refrigerators at natural springs that will not dry up midway through summer.
Rinehart said the success of fish hatching has reached a consistent 95 percent to 98 percent so the challenge now is to keep using the methods they have developed. What remains to be seen is the success of fish actually returning to the central Idaho streams and rivers to spawn.
It takes about 18 months before the salmon and steelhead fry have grown into smolts able to handle ocean conditions. The fish typically spend one to three years at sea before returning to spawn.
Galindo says they have seen fish returning to the waters they tend, though they have no quantitative evidence of the programs effects yet.
Rinehart and Galindo are hoping to extend their expiring five-year grant for another term to see if the program has brought an appreciable number of fish back to the rivers and streams. But whatever the outcome for the fish, Galindo insists the most important part is the education of the children.
"We think it's successful because we have kids in their outdoor classroom. We're teaching kids to think."
The Dance of the Salmon, an Indian
the Salmon Home Page
Guide to Reading
KOLA Information: http://users.skynet.be/kola/index.ht
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