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Students' Dance of the Salmon hatchery program is a success

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FORT HALL, Idaho - High school students at Shoshone-Bannock High School are helping Mother Nature and giving state fish hatcheries a run for their money raising steelhead trout and spring chinook.

Using refurbished refrigerators and a lot of prayer, the students are averaging a 97 percent hatch rate every spring with their low-tech approach. In comparison, modern state hatcheries with their crowded conditions usually average around an 80 percent live hatch rate. In the wild, young fish facing predators, mud slides, floods and other hazards only stand a 10 to 15 percent chance at survival.

The program, called Dance of the Salmon, started eight years ago when students in Ed Galindo's science class asked the not so simple question, "Where have the salmon gone?"

Instead of answering them with borrowed words and textbook answers, Galindo set the class on a journey to discover the real story for themselves.

After asking permission from the tribal council, Galindo and his students packed up sleeping bags, tents and "the best bologna money can buy" and headed downstream toward the ocean 930 miles away. Camping, staying with different tribes and church groups, the class followed the salmon's course, asking people all along the way, "What happened to the salmon?"

"We talked to some of the hydro people and they told us that it was the mining industry's fault or it was the recreation people," Galindo says. "And we talked to people in boats and it was the hydro people's fault. And when we talked to people along the way, it was the seal's fault. And when we got to the mouth of the Columbia, it was the Russian's fault and the Japanese' and Chinese' fault.

"So we listened to these stories. People were pretty quick to point fingers, but not very many were quick to have a solution."

At one point in the journey, the students were invited to join a group of elders on a picnic lunch at Lyle Point. Within the hour, the private landholder - in a dispute with the local tribe over land use - had called the police and eight patrol cars showed up. With the sheriff threatening to arrest everybody, Galindo says the only thing he could think of was, "What will the school board say when I call from jail asking for bail?"

When the elders politely stepped forward asking to be arrested in place of their young guests, the situation was defused. But the students were given yet one more lesson about the fate of salmon in Northwest rivers. The land, the rivers and the salmon themselves had become disputed resources, subject to an endless tug-of-war between separate interest groups.

Determined to come home and make a difference, the students applied to the state and the tribal government for permission to start a salmon hatching project. Both groups said no to raising endangered salmon, but agreed to let the students start out raising steelhead trout.

The young people cleaned out an unused refrigerator, removed all the machinery and any traces of oil or Freon and then placed it in a local tributary with about 25,000 eggs. They monitored it, ensured it wasn't covered with mud or debris from spring rains. They kept journals and tested the water for acidity, for nitrates and oxygen levels. And they prayed and let nature take its course.

Within four years their hatch rate was so good both the state fisheries department and the tribal government gave permission for students to start raising spring chinook. Now they have about 40 boxes out and are hatching about 1 million steelhead eggs a year, plus a few hundred precious chinook eggs.

"They have this one box up there where we put Chinook eggs and they have some telemetry on it where they can monitor the temperature and monitor the fry as they go out and so forth," says Mike Haddix, Shoshone-Bannock tribal fisheries production biologist. "It's a real good program. It gets the kids out. They get to see how these fish develop and get to look at habitat. Maybe they're up there in the summer when these fish return, and so forth."

Not only is the program a success with the students, it's a success for the fish. For example, last year there were 27 nests made in one stream alone where there hadn't been fish for eight to 10 years.

"We feel pretty good," Galindo says. "We know there are lots of other factors involved. The hydro people have increased flows and lots of people are working.

"But we know for ourselves that when we put a box out there, that we have enough faith and prayers and hopes that these fish will come back. And I have the same for my students. And so young students are working to help young fish - two tribes of folks are working together. And I see that as a win-win situation."

Galindo believes one of the most important things is that students don't feed the hatching fry or baby them. The box provides safety from predators and the students don't force them to leave at a particular time. Contrary to modern hatcheries, the fish develop on their own and leave at their own pace.

"We're getting eggs from fish that are spawning way earlier than what they did historically when they were naturally wild fish," Haddix says. "So we're trying to get that incubation period extended and trying to use later fish so we get higher survivals.

"The school has been real helpful in assisting us in monitoring the incubation boxes ... and we're trying to concentrate on the evaluation and what happens after that."

The students are seeing firsthand that the "help and then hands-off" approach allows salmon to become stream-smart fish that can take better care of themselves out in the wild.

Galindo says he thinks the parallel between young salmon and young students is hard to miss.

"If you train your students to think for themselves, do for themselves and then when they graduate we boot them out the door of our school - which is a big hatch box - we're expecting them to survive.

"I have great faith that they both will, if you have enough patience and prayers that good things will happen."