Sultan High students operate their own hatchery on campus

SULTAN — Biology students at Sultan High School are raising salmon in a hatchery on campus and expect to release them into the wild later this year.

The school’s hatchery apparently is unique in the state. Students also visit nearby spawning streams to learn about the life cycle of salmon.

Principal Tami Nesting said the hatchery program encourages students to solve real-world problems to keep the fish healthy.

“I’ve worked in schools with large budgets and incredible science labs,” Nesting said. “That doesn’t even come close to what we oftentimes take for granted on our small school campus.”

Other Washington high schools have programs in which students work at nearby hatcheries. But Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said he knows of no others that have a hatchery on campus.

“It’s nice for our students to see that we have something most schools don’t,” said Ryan Monger, the science teacher who oversees the hatchery. “Salmon are our most important resource in Washington state. It connects them to that.”

Without the hatchery, students would be stuck in the classroom because the district lacks money for field trips or expensive lab experiments, he said. Monger estimates that his yearly budget for labs is about $3 per student. With the hatchery, students get a chance to go beyond memorizing facts and put their knowledge of biology to work.

“Any chance I get to have students doing real-life science, I like,” he said. “It’s a very cool project.”

Each fall, the high school gets about 10,000 coho salmon from the nearby Wallace River Hatchery. Water is collected from runoff in a concrete basin behind the hatchery. It flows into shallow troughs inside, where alevin, or newly hatched salmon, are kept while they grow.

The salmon are moved into larger containers when they get close to being able to live in saltwater. Students feed and monitor the coho, collecting measurements and other data until they can be released into the Sultan River in early summer. After they’re released, the salmon swim to the ocean, where they grow until they return to the river to spawn.

“It’s going to be a good feeling to release hundreds of fish into the river,” said Jessy Moore, the Sultan High senior tasked with running the hatchery this year. “It’s definitely a changing experience to be a part of this.”

Throughout the school year, Moore and his classmates care for the fish. They collect data by catching the coho and averaging individual results.

It’s Moore’s job to feed the fish.

“This is the best part, watching them come up and eat,” he said, sprinkling fish food over the murky water.

Don Foltz, a retired Sultan teacher, fills in for Moore, 17, during vacation breaks and has long volunteered to help students continue the project throughout the year.

Raising coho comes with challenges that aren’t common in the classroom. In October, a trough at the hatchery broke. All of the salmon were killed.

“Not everything runs smoothly like in a textbook,” Monger said.

Students played “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for the dead fish. Monger got several hundred more coho, and his classes went about raising them.

But just before winter break, the fish were infected with a fungus that started killing some of the weaker ones. Students had to figure out how to control the fungus so their fish would survive.

Now they’re waiting for the coho to grow large enough to have their fins clipped. Workers in hatcheries clip salmon fins to indicate to fishermen that they are not wild. Monger wants his students to start doing that this year.

Moore is also planning to renovate the hatchery building before he goes off to college next year. He wants to leave it better than he found it for the next group of high school scientists.

Moore isn’t alone in taking ownership of the hatchery project. Senior Kerrin Reynolds so enjoyed working with salmon at school, she started volunteering at the Wallace River Hatchery.

Reynolds, 18, credits those experiences with helping her choose a career path. She wants to study at Washington State University and go into fish management.

“It feels good knowing you’re helping the local salmon run,” Reynolds said. “Putting those extra salmon into the river helps more than people think. And it’s fun, too.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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