NEW BUFFALO — Twenty little Chinook salmon got an auspicious send-off into the Galien River on Wednesday, May 8.

River Valley Elementary Three Oaks Campus Principal Patrick Zuccala welcomed a throng of kindergartners, third-graders and high school students that  more than filled the platform at the end of Galien River Country Park boardwalk to the “first ever salmon release event at River Valley.”

“We hope to make this an annual event,” he added before many of the students experienced the thrill off seeing the dart off into the cloudy waters between the river’s main channel and the park’s wetlands (both swollen to high levels due to recent heavy rains).

High School junior Brandon Henrichsen said the district’s participation in the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Salmon in the Classroom program started around Thanksgiving break with aquariums full of salmon eggs in each of River Valley’s three buildings.

“It was over break that they hatched. There were very, very small and that had (a yolk from the egg) still attached to them. That was their source of food,” he said.

Once the little salmon lost that built-in source of food, students fed them with pellets.

Kindergartners, third-graders and high school students in Pam Kaniuga’s AP Environmental Science Class oversaw the tanks in their classrooms.

Kaniuga said the salmon eggs came from the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery in Mattawan.

“We started with 150 eggs, and we ended up with 20 (salmon to release) — but ours are big, about four inches.”

Tracy Page, Aquatic Education Coordinator for the DNR, said 270 schools are involved across the state (within a reasonable field trip distance of water where the fish can be released).

She said the Chinook spend their time in the river system in what’s called the “parr”  phase (also known as the fry stage, with perch-like green markings to provide camouflage in the river) before heading out into Lake Michigan as “smolts.”

“As they make their way out to the lakes they get a silvery appearance … and that’s better camouflage for out in the lake,” she said.

Page said adults swim back up the river they came from (their natal stream) in one to four years, adding that the fish released on May 8 will imprint on the Galien River before they leave so they can find their way back.

“They swim back up their natal stream to spawn and die. And that’s their life cycle,” she said.

“Ones that come back that first year are called Jacks and they’re just precocious. They want to mate and die and be done. Other ones it takes two, three, four years. They live out in the lake and get huge eating mostly alewives.”

Page said the predator-prey balance between Chinook and Alewives has reached the point where the smaller fish don’t fill beaches in the epic die-offs that happened decades ago.

AP Environmental Science class students tested the water temperature (the wetlands adjacent to the river measured 60 degrees farenheit while the little salmon were in 52 degree water, so the fish were acclimated to the warmer conditions before being set free.

Three of the high school students that helped to raise and release the salmon plan to pursue fish and wildlife-related careers — seniors Josh Clark and Jacob Lohraff (both set to attend Lake Superior State) along with sophomore Evan Strefling.

Lohraff said he wants to become a fisheries biologist or a fisheries technician.

He said the Salmon in the Classroom program has given him insight into the life cycles of the fish from spawning to the small fry stage (which is where they were when released).

Clark said a big adult Chinook is about 45 inches long and weighs between 10 and 20 pounds.

Kaniuga said high school students concentrated on water quality issues and how they tie into the life cycles of the fish while raising the Chinook.

River Valley kindergarten teacher Mark Gallagher said it was a fun and educational experience raising the fish in a tank in the classroom.

“Every day the kids would go and watch them. Little by little they changed and got bigger.”

“We talked a lot about the life cycle of the salmon and that they started as eggs, and we talked about when they went on the alevan stage when they have the little yolk sac, and the kids got to see that. The stage that we just saw was the fry stage.”

Gallagher said they also talked about the habitat the salmon will live in, why they are in Lake Michigan (they were introduced to alleviate the alewife problem and also are part of the sport fishing scene).

He noted that the Steelheaders helped fund and organize the program.

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