Last Monday morning, a bumbling yellow bus carried Mr. Trone's fourth-grade students eastbound down Highway 299. The Pine Hill Elementary students were about to say some sad goodbyes down by the rocky banks of the Mad River.
Already waiting at the Mad River Fish Hatchery in Blue Lake, 11 baby steelhead swam round and round inside a 5-gallon white Ace Hardware bucket in the same water they were born in. In a few short hours, those 11 steelhead would swim strong and free against the mighty river current for the first time.
For three months, those 11 steelhead sat under a warming light in a tiny glass fish tank while the fourthgraders watched pink squishy eyed-eggs develop into inch-long baby fishies.
Those 11 steelhead — if they survive the perilous journey up the Mad River — will not return to the same location and as fully grown fish for another three years.
As noble as they were, Mr. Trone's students were not alone in their steelhead raising-and-freeing crusade. This year, students just like his raised a total of 875 steelhead eggs in classrooms all over Humboldt County. Participating schools everywhere from Cutten to Weott all released their steelhead into Humboldt County streams this April and May. Pine Hill was one of the last.
This wasn't the first year students got an opportunity to raise steelhead in their classrooms, and the classrooms aren't just in Humboldt County. Every year, the Department of Fish and Game donates steelhead, trout and salmon eggs to elementary, middle and high schools all over California. It's called "The Classroom Aquarium Educational Project (CAEP)," an integrated, semester-long educational tool that started in Canada and made its way to California back in 1985. Schools from up in Del Norte County all the way down to Los Angeles County participate every year. The program aims to integrate fishery knowledge into classrooms and educate students about an important and prevalent local issue.
"It's important for the kids to realize that steelhead and salmon are an important part of our economy," Chris Ramsey of the Department of Fish and Game said. "And it gives them something to be proud of."
Earlier this year, Mr. Trone contacted the Mad River Fish Hatchery to arrange for the "Steelhead in the Classroom" program (a category of CAEP) to be implemented in his fourth-grade class. He heard about it from a professor at Humboldt State University and wanted to teach his kids an urgent contemporary topic. "It's in the papers every day," he said. "This way the kids can learn what it's all about."
Since February, the fourth-graders learned all about steelhead as they watched their own grow up in a glass fish tank on a painted metal bookshelf. They learned how to formulate sustainability models and identify helpful and harmful environmental factors to a steelhead's life. They listened to Native American legends and wrote essays about steelhead. They even calculated exactly what day their eyed-eggs would hatch into steelhead. (Unfortunately they calculated wrong, because the eggs hatched two days after predicted. None of the fourth-graders' egos were all that hurt.)
Along with learning all about steelhead, the fourth graders learned that this year was one of the most devastating in history for salmon populations on the West Coast. The DFG says a healthy returning salmon population is 150,000. Yet only a third of that number, 54,000 salmon, are expected to return downstream this fall. So the kids found out that California ocean salmon seasons have officially been closed for the remainder of 2008, and why.
One by one, the very knowledgeable and enlightened fourth-graders said the final goodbye to their baby steelhead out on the riverbanks last Monday morning.
They stood in a single file line as the teacher's aid asked each of them what they wanted to say. The first kid was over it — he just said "Pass." The next few copied each other and all said "see ya." A Spanish-speaking boy told his steelhead, "Adios, amigo." One diplomatic little boy with glasses toward the end of the line said to his fish, "Goodbye, and good luck with your life."
The fourth-graders took the baby steelhead from the Ace Hardware bucket into clear plastic cups, then gently lowered the cups into the riverbank. The steelhead languidly swam out of the plastic cups into the softly rippled Mad River. Then the kids watched as the fish swam out of eyesight. But it wasn't goodbye forever. In three more years the steelhead will return as fully-grown adults. The kids will be seventh-graders.