Anchorage students learn about salmon life cycle and their local watershed

Updated April 27, 2017

scientist talking to elementary school class

On a recent spring morning, fourth graders at Creekside Park Elementary in east Anchorage gathered at a makeshift salmon stream, coursing inside their classroom. They listened as Alaska Sea Grant’s marine education specialist Marilyn Sigman explained the salmon life cycle and what it takes to keep these iconic fish healthy.

“Remember the three Cs: clean, cold, connected,” Sigman said. “Salmon have to have clean, cold water and they need to be able to migrate to complete their life cycle. The watershed needs to be completely connected to the ocean.”

Salmon-bearing streams flow through Anchorage’s urban neighborhoods from their headwaters in the Chugach mountain range that rings Alaska’s largest city. When the salmon are running, residents often fish the waters a short drive from their home or jobs. At Ship Creek, a king salmon hotspot in downtown Anchorage, it’s not uncommon to see office workers wetting a line and landing a 30-pound salmon during their lunch breaks. It’s a place that also draws throngs of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the silvery fish.

At Creekside Park Elementary, the fourth graders were learning about salmon through a teaching kit incorporating lessons from Alaska Seas and Watersheds, a curriculum developed by teachers in partnership with Alaska Sea Grant. The online K-8 curriculum promotes place-based learning about Alaska’s 44,000 miles of coastline and oceans, and the state’s rich marine resources. A teaching kit developed with financial support from Sea Grant specifically for the Anchorage School District includes classroom instruction and field trips, both for teachers to deliver on their own or offered by Sigman and other Anchorage community partners.

Students do hands-on activities to determine if the stream near their school is a place where salmon could survive well. The activities include sampling the water to measure dissolved oxygen concentrations, pH, and temperature, calculating water velocity, and collecting macro-invertebrates as indicators of water quality. In addition, they’re encouraged to notice what people have done to help or harm salmon habitat, and usually end up volunteering to clean up stream debris.

The students find that nearly every stream reach near Anchorage schools is healthy for salmon thanks to a lot of work and science to maintain the habitat.

Alaska Sea Grant marine education specialist Marilyn Sigman.

When Anchorage streams are free of ice and running clear, Creekside Park Elementary students will explore Chester Creek, the main salmon waterway near their homes and school.

On the day that Sigman visited the classroom, spring thaw was still in its early stages so Creekside Park teachers kept students indoors to avoid giant mud puddles in the school playground. The classroom buzzed with the energy of two dozen or so nine and 10-year-olds.

“Let’s get back to our calm, listening voices, please,” said teacher Cynde Hill.

Sigman had created a mock, indoor salmon stream, using tape to represent the banks, paper circles to mimic macro-invertebrates that young salmon like to feed on, stuffed toys resembling ravens, eagles, marine mammals, and other predators, and a greasy old vest to represent garbage or pollution.

“Does anyone know which watershed your school is in?” Sigman asked.

Silence.

“How about which ocean in the closest?”

A few hands went up.

“The Pacific!” a little girl shouted. “Right! And your watershed is the Chester Creek watershed,” Sigman said.

A former state habitat biologist, Sigman taught the students about how salmon go from being an egg, an alevin, a fry, a juvenile, a smolt, and finally an adult that returns to its natal stream to spawn and die. She covered a range of topics including the kinds of food and water conditions each stage of life a salmon requires and the challenges salmon face as they migrate from fresh water to the ocean and back again.

After some classroom discussion, Sigman had the kids line up along the indoor stream. Some got to hold objects like a mock fishing pole or a net, or a stuffed raven or a sea lion. A teacher and a helper twirled a rope over the stream, representing the turbines on a dam that salmon might try to negotiate. With obstacles and predators in place, other students pretended to be salmon and began swimming up the stream.

If they got caught by the rope, struck by the net or fishing pole, or tagged by a predator, they died, and called out that they had become “sushi!”

The kids ran up the stream, yelping and screaming if they made it successfully without getting caught or preyed upon.

“You’re going to become my sushi!” one girl yelled, attempting to tag her classmates with a toy orca.

Once the “salmon” made it up the stream, they entered the ocean (the area where the carpet ended and tile began) circled around four times, and then walked backwards through the stream to mimic swimming against the current in their final stage of life.

The students will have two field trips before the spring semester ends. On May 4, they will head to the grounds of Begich Middle School to explore Chester Creek. Later in the month, May 16-18, they will join several other classes from Anchorage schools at Westchester Lagoon to see for themselves where the watershed connects to the Pacific Ocean and have an opportunity to see juvenile salmon caught in minnow traps. This “Creek Week” program is just one of many Alaska Sea Week field trip programs throughout the state which are opportunities  for students  to deepen their understanding of watersheds, their local streams, rivers and oceans, and to celebrate the marine resources in their communities.

Alaska Sea Grant has invested heavily in promoting marine literacy in the state.

Beginning in 2014, it committed $113,000 to 10 of Alaska’s school districts for marine and aquatic education programs in 19 communities. In Anchorage, Alaska Sea Grant contributed $10,000 in a three-year grant used to pay for field trips, equipment, and to support the development of a 4th grade STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) kit and supplementary field trip kit. Students in every Anchorage fourth-grade classroom will now spend a semester learning about Anchorage watershed ecosystems and salmon in the context of interdependence and many will go on field trips to test the waters.

— By Paula Dobbyn

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.