Commentary: Salmon and students working together

By Mike Wells and Tommy Sheridan
For The Cordova Times

This winter, teachers across the Copper River watershed will set up fish tanks in their classrooms. But they won’t be stocking them with your average pet store goldfish. Instead, each tank will receive a basket of coho salmon eggs. For the next six months, students in the classroom will collect daily water temperatures, track the eggs’ development, feed the fry that hatch, and learn about the salmon life cycle. Come springtime, they’ll release the fry they hatched and raised back into the wild.

For more than a decade, Salmon in the Classroom has connected local students with the natural world, particularly the Copper River watershed and the salmon who depend on clear lakes, rivers, and oceans to survive. With the leadership of the Copper River Watershed Project, the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, the Valdez Fishery Development Association, and long-term support from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in school program permitting statewide, the program aims to teach students about the biology of Pacific salmon species and their critical habitat requirements.

Through Salmon in the Classroom, young Alaskans learn how the health of an ecosystem like the Copper River watershed impacts local livelihoods, communities and, most importantly, wild salmon runs. Students come to understand that clean lakes, streams, and oceans enable salmon to return year after year. By making students responsible for the wellbeing of their own salmon, the program hopes to instill a greater sense of responsibility for the health of the entire Copper River watershed, as well as the creatures that live there.

Due to strong ties between communities throughout the watershed, the program is able to place a tank in every school, fostering closer relations between schools. Virtual meetings allow students to see and talk with other classrooms and compare what they’re seeing in their tank to what others have seen in theirs. Students who might otherwise never meet get to talk about their shared interest in the world around them.

Ultimately, Salmon in the Classroom works to inspire students’ curiosity about our public lands, waters, and resources. It fosters a mindset focused on the sustainable use of our natural resources among the next generation of community stakeholders, many of whom will go on to work on a commercial fishing boat or for a processing facility, hatchery, regulating agency, or business with ties to the fishing industry.

As co-sponsors of this remarkable program, we are proud of the work being done to educate young Alaskans about the importance of protecting local ecosystems, especially our wild salmon stocks and the conservation programs that support them. Our hope is that by connecting the next generation with the environment, they will come to realize the importance of protecting it.

If we make the time and support the programs to teach them, our children will preserve the world around them—not only wild salmon runs but the livelihoods and communities that depend on them—and pass on to their children what it means to be Alaskan. As longtime residents of Cordova and Valdez, that is something that we are incredibly proud to be a part of.

We would like to thank the Copper River Watershed Project for leading this program alongside all those who make it possible, including: ADFG, AITRC, Copper Valley Telecom, Cordova School District, Copper River School District, Mentaska Lake Katie John School, Prince William Sound Science Center, and WISE.

Tommy Sheridan is CEO of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and Mike Wells is executive director of Valdez Fisheries Development Association.