A Fish Tale // Sakai Students Improve Bainbridge Watershed

By Erin Jennings

It’s no surprise that a “teachable moment” in the Pacific Northwest would involve salmon. But it is notable that what began as an innocent salmon release project at Sakai Intermediate School has turned students into full fledged scientists. “The [spring] salmon release is very much at the heart of Sakai school life,” said Kathy Ellison, school librarian and coordinator of the project. “The chance to raise and release salmon is one of the things that makes a childhood on Bainbridge Island so special.”

But last fall the City of Bainbridge Island released a “State of the Island’s Waters” report and in it the Murden Cove Watershed—the very watershed where the students release the salmon—was identified as being the one with the worst water quality on Bainbridge. When Ellison read the report, she was horrified. She, along with principal Jim Corestti, contacted Cami Apfelbeck, water resource specialist for the City of Bainbridge Island, to ask how Sakai could help improve conditions in the stream.

It turned out the folks from Sakai weren’t the only ones concerned. Apfelbeck received phone calls from the Kitsap Public Health District, the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council, the Kitsap Conservation District and outdoor learning center IslandWood. Together with the school district, they formed the Murden Cove Watershed Nutrient and Bacteria Reduction Project to address the concern.

Salmon Release Tradition

Sakai began releasing chum salmon when the school first opened in 1999. Principal Corsetti, who at the time was a classroom teacher, started the project with his students, but it quickly expanded to include the entire school community. Each January, a thousand chum eggs arrive at the school. The eggs are placed in a specially designed aquarium tank and the water is kept at a chilly 47 degrees Fahrenheit—the optimal temperature for salmon eggs.

The tank is shrouded in black fabric to mimic the darkness the salmon eggs would experience buried in gravel streambeds. Over the weeks, curious students peek under the cloth to watch the eggs hatch and turn into alevin, which continue to receive nourishment from their yolk sacs until the sacs are absorbed. At the fry stage, the cloth is removed and fish are fed in the tank until they are large enough to be released, usually right before spring break.

“If students find out they are leaving early for vacation, they desperately try to find a way to release their salmon before going out of town. It’s that important to them,” Ellison said.

The salmon release involves a lot more than just walking down to the stream behind Sakai and dumping in the fish. Ellison implements an entire curriculum around the release. Students learn about the uniqueness of salmon, including their distinctive life cycle. Despite its haggard looks, a salmon that returns to its spawning grounds, is considered biologically successful—a feat not many experience. Students write letters to their fry, giving them sage advice such as to stay away from shiny neon-colored objects in the water (fishing lures) and to swim away from paws and claws (bears and eagles). And when the big day arrives, the students walk slowly down to the stream.

Carrying the ceremonial salmon talking stick, Ellison leads the way, sharing information on how salmon are an important part of the Pacific Northwest ecology. And, of course, as a librarian, she throws in a few folk tales and fables about the iconic fish. At the stream, the students are handed two fry in a cup and given instructions on how to release them: find a quiet part of the stream, kneel down and tip the cup upstream very slowly. The kids know the odds any one salmon will return to the creek are very low. Because of that, students are encouraged to give the fish a pep talk and name them before they are released.

“I tell the students not to give the fish weak names like ‘Sushi’ or ‘Dinner.’ Instead, I encourage them to use strong names that will give the fish confidence,” Ellison said.

That, in a nutshell, is Sakai’s salmon release tradition. But this past school year—because of the “State of the Waters” report—a whole new educational component was introduced, ratcheting the program up the proverbial salmon ladder.

Becoming Citizen Scientists

When the students learned of the poor marks the watershed received, their immediate reaction was, “Oh! The stream is dirty.” But that isn’t entirely correct. While it’s true the stream isn’t what it could be, it’s still safe to release fish. The mystery is: What is affecting the water quality? The Murden Cove Watershed covers more than 2,000 acres and is one of the island’s largest watersheds. The area contains residential, commercial, recreational and agricultural land. The diverse land-use makes it challenging to identify the culprits. By becoming one of seven testing sites within the watershed, Sakai is helping pinpoint just where the problem lies.

The school district teamed up with IslandWood and together they secured a $31,000 grant from 3M to purchase a high-tech probe to test the water. Far Bank Enterprises, an island-based company that manufactures fly fishing rods and reels, provided a grant to cover teacher training. And splash! In just a few months, the project was up and running.

In conjunction with the water testing, IslandWood’s Clair Durkes developed curriculum for Sakai fifth graders. The fiveweek unit includes multiple outdoor experiences, indoor lessons and stream testing. This hands-on approach integrates all the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) components, which are hot topics in today’s academic world.

Water testing provides a real-world scenario where learning flows organically. Students learn to think critically in the moment. For example, when analyzing data from the water probe, math skills learned in the classroom setting will come into play out in the field. Just like professional scientists, students learn the protocol involved when capturing data: calibrating the equipment for accurate results, taking multiple readings and problem solving when there are outliers.

“This is a really new type of science teaching and learning. This is STEM learning defined,” Durkes said. “The problem of the watershed drives the learning.”

Using the probe, students test water temperature, levels of dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity (how much sediment is in the water). The results are shared with the City of Bainbridge Island, and Apfelbeck collects and
tracks the data.

Along with testing, Sakai students have been given the task of educating the public about the state of the island’s waterways. They have created short informative videos describing ways residents can make a difference: limiting use of fertilizer, bagging grass clippings, properly removing pet and agricultural waste, and maintaining and inspecting septic systems. Students have also done community outreach by presenting information at neighborhood and City Council meetings.

“This project is being watched very closely regionally to see how it does,” Apfelbeck said. “There has long been a theory that for a project like this to be successful and improve water conditions, it will take an entire community.”

Apfelbeck said that in a watershed the size of Murden Cove’s, there is a high probability for success, though it could take two to three years to see results. She’s very optimistic the watershed will improve—thanks in part to the students’ enthusiasm and dedication. “I think a lot of times we underestimate what children are capable of doing, and they are doing terrific work. I love seeing the pride on their faces when they are producing helpful data,” she said. “They just glow with excitement. And rightly so!”