Baby salmon teach lesson in life's variety

OLYMPIA - There are 846 classrooms across the state raising baby salmon this year.

But it's likely that the students in only one of those classrooms, Kathi Rafferty's seventh-graders at Saint Michael School, are raising two coho salmon that are joined together at the belly.

"We named them Gemini," Rafferty said. "We had Fish and Wildlife out here, and they said they've seen fish joined side by side before, but never belly to belly, so it's kind of unique."

One of the two tiny conjoined fish is always upside-down as they swim among the 200 or so young coho salmon in their special tank in the Saint Michael library.

The little fish arrived as fertilized coho eggs from a local hatchery.

Rafferty's students kept track of the eggs after they were placed in the cool, clear waters of the 55-gallon aquarium. A refrigeration unit keeps the water at 46 to 47 degrees, cold enough for salmon.

Most of the eggs began developing.

"You could see little eyes in the eggs," said seventh-grader Matt Lester, 13. "And you could see their spines."

The eggs began to hatch in mid-January, and Lester was the first to notice that two of the little fish were connected at the egg sac.

All the kids knew that newly hatched salmon live and grow from the nutrients in the egg sac.

It's easy to find Gemini, as the two are smaller than the other coho.

"We figured out they were smaller because they're sharing one egg sac, so they're each getting half the nutrition that the other fish get," Rafferty said.

The goal behind the Salmon in the Classroom program is to get children involved with salmon streams, the salmon life cycle and teaching the importance of salmon to everyone in Washington, said James Chandler, state Department of Fish and Wildlife Salmon in the Classroom program director.

"Kids get a chance to do real science in the classroom and out on the stream," Chandler said.

South Sound classrooms eventually release their salmon into the Nisqually, Woodard Creek or Woodland Creek watersheds, Chandler said.

Rafferty's students are learning about the next stop for their baby salmon, which is Jorgensen Creek. It flows into Woodland Creek, which flows into Puget Sound.

"We're learning that salmon are a big part of the ecosystem," said Kiana Jenkins, 12. "We're learning that we're not supposed to cut down trees right next to the river, because salmon need shade and cool water."

Students are learning that they can't dump oil in street drains, put too much fertilizer on lawns or let sewage get into Puget Sound, Rafferty said.

Every student is writing a paper on salmon and water quality.

"It's a great program," Rafferty said.

Students also have learned that Gemini probably won't survive in the wild, as the two conjoined fish won't be able to compete for food or swim fast enough to avoid predators.

There's a good chance Gemini won't even make it out of the tank alive, said student Sarah Erskine, 13.

But a lot of the little coho will survive the tank - and some may survive life in the wild.

"We'll release them the third or fourth week of April," Rafferty said. "We all know the odds of them surviving are pretty small." For more information

To learn more about the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Salmon in the Classroom program, call 360-902-8307 or go to http://wdfw.wa.gov/outreach/education/salclass.htm.