Salmon in schools

One afternoon when she was midway through the fifth grade, my daughter Caitlin arrived home and sadly announced that her class’s fish had died. Mr. Cater had arranged with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to have the Salmonid Enhancement Program’s Salmon in the Classroom that year, and, according to Cait, it appeared that the janitor had accidentally pulled the plug that powered the aquarium’s pump and, as a consequence, the poor little coho fry asphyxiated over night.

I sympathized, but hastened to point out that there was a big lesson to be learned from the tragic event. The wild cousins of those tanked salmon fry would be never have been concentrated in such a large number within such a small space. Instead, they would been dispersed throughout the length of their natal creek singly or in small schools, hiding under woody debris, in the interstices on the stream’s rocky bottom, or feeding on microorganisms in quick riffles, ready to dart for cover under a nearby cut bank at the approach of danger.

Putting all one’s fry in one aquarium is similar to putting all one’s eggs in one basket. Having those fingerlings in more than one aquarium would increase their chances of survival against janitorial mishap, but do nothing in the event of a power outage. You could have aquariums in different towns, but, as you can see, when trying to avoid disaster in unnatural settings, things quickly become absurd.

I told Cait that hatcheries were a lot like her ill-fated aquarium in that they also confine fish in small spaces relative to their natural habitats. In confinement, salmon — and all fish, for that matter — have a heightened vulnerability to disease. This is a continuing headache for hatcheries and has lead to some questionable preventative measures.

The coho in that aquarium were taken from wild Lakelse stock. The eggs stripped from a female were fertilized with the milt from a male. Using the eggs and sperm from wild fish is far better from a genetic perspective than taking them from hatchery fish, as people in fish culture have known for a long time. What hatcheries do is fundamentally flawed from a genetic perspective because their endeavours play fast and loose with natural selection.

For these reasons, fisheries activists, and organizations like the Steelhead Society of B.C., have opposed the proliferation of hatcheries, suggesting that they only be used with utmost circumspection for lake stocking or where all other measures have been exhausted.

When Caitlin was in the fifth grade, the great breakthroughs in genetics had not yet been made. Since then, research has shown that juvenile hatchery salmon start to experience genetic alteration that makes them less viable in the wild after only a few months. In other words, they become domesticated, and domesticated creatures do miserably in wilderness settings.

At first the Salmon Enhancement Program and Salmon in the Classroom promoted the inspirational fixes hatcheries were thought to offer, but over time the classroom program evolved. Now, thankfully, the emphasis is on the importance of wild fish and the preservation of their habitats. The children watch their adopted salmon fry grow all winter, during which time they learn a lot about the little creatures. In spring they make their way to Herman’s Creek along with their teachers where DFO staff (in Terrace the program is skillfully conducted by Rob Dams and his assistants) assist them to release the fish into the creek.

The kids learn about fish anatomy, the habitat requirements of salmon, and they get to do a little frolicking in the woods as a bonus. My experience with the program has convinced me that, if anything, it needs to be expanded.

In BC, and in Skeena in particular, we are ideally set up to learn all manner of valuable life lessons associated with salmon and their importance to our cultures. Even here where we are surrounded by forests, children suffer from nature deficit disorder.

As a species, we spent the lion’s share of our history in the bush. For our spiritual well being and general health we need to return to it. Outdoor programs, like Salmon in the Classroom encourage an appetite to do just that.

Yet recently, the federal government announced it was going to give the program the chop. The public outcry was loud. Teachers, conservation groups, First Nations, fishers, elected officials, and thousands of other citizens stepped up over the past couple of weeks and voiced their concerns. Two Liberal MPs, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones and Ken Hardie, joined New Democrat Fin Donnelly and worked within the government to change its mind.

The fact that the government not only listened to its constituents then reversed their decision, but openly admitted the original decision was wrong-headed, was something we haven’t seen at the federal level for a long time.

Under Harper’s autocratic rule, salmon took a real licking, and there is still much to do to repair the damage inflicted by a government that didn’t understand that economy and ecology have the same root and that both require a healthy environment.

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