Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Fishy Halloween

A small group of students gather around raceways at Eagle Creek NFH
in search of swimming fish.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
It's a rainy Halloween day. Six cars slowly approach down the windy roads just outside of Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery (NFH). As a ten year old, eager to dress up like a princess or superhero, filling pillow cases with candy, the wet pavement, rows of green roofed buildings and a few elongated pools, seemingly not suitable for swimming, may not seem like the best field trip at first glance. But it's what is going on inside of these buildings and dark mysterious concrete pools that trigger the wide-eyed gazes of amazement, a cringe here and there, and a chance to make a new friend in the shape of a tiny, squishy, orange egg.

The students observe coho spawning.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
Salmon Watch
This field trip was a part of the newly restored Salmon Watch program, which aims to connect students and teachers with salmon, and other wild fish, in efforts to spark their interest and love for these important species. On this day, coho spawning was taking place at Eagle Creek, surely something these students had never before witnessed.

Some initial reactions to the spawning process from two students who
would later rush to touch one of the adult cohos.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
Scary, Exciting Spawning
The tour began with a live viewing of the coho salmon spawning, a process that brings adult fish into the hatchery where eggs are manually collected from the female fish and fertilized by the male fish. Each year, this process allows Eagle Creek to produce 1.4 million coho smolt for the Columbia River Basin. While this process may cause those unfamiliar with it to find themselves a bit squeamish, even the group of girls who at first crinkled up their faces in disgust, were later the first eagerly outreached hands to "pet" one of the coho.

Fascinated by their tiny, unfertilized coho
Credit: Meghan Kearney
Bonding with Coho
Before leaving the spawning area, the students were all given an unfertilized egg to examine (meaning it, unfortunately for the students, wouldn’t hatch into a coho). Bonds were quickly formed with these "baby fish" and before we knew it, names like "Mr. Squishy" were being thrown around. It was obvious these eggs would go nowhere but home into twenty-five different bowls of tap water. The next stop on the tour took the group into the hatchery building where fertilized eggs are held until hatching and then released into those mysterious concrete raceways. Here, the group learned more about the tiny orange eggs, discovering that soon the eggs in the building would become "eyed," meaning a fish was starting to develop. From the looks on their faces and dedication to observing their eggs, these kids were ready for a fish to sprout up inside of their ziplock bags at any second.

Students excitedly gather around the hatchery's fish
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
No Ordinary Ladder
Next, it was time for the group to make their way to the fish ladder, a term that kept everyone excited all morning. This was definitely their finale. "Can we climb it?!" asked one of the students. After giggles subsided, the group learned how a fish ladder differed from a human's ladder, and why these ladders were so important to fish. The time finally came for the children to head back to school. A day spent at the seemingly unexciting fish hatchery would now more likely be remembered as nature's Disneyland. Twenty-five children left the hatchery that day, understanding the nature of fish conservation and undoubtedly taking that with them into their future. But more importantly, I knew twenty-five coho eggs that were about to spend their evening Trick-or-Treating.

Check out more photos from this Halloween field trip!


  1. Here's a great article on the return of the Salmon Watch program:

  2. Wow, this is great! Thanks for sharing, Mandy - we were looking for something like this!

  3. P.S. I added a link into this blog entry :)