Blog and photos by Kathryn Peiman, OFAH
As I walk down the school hallway carrying Atlantic Salmon eggs, two girls are leading me to their classroom. One is walking fast. The other girl asks her to slow down. She responds with, “I can’t, I’m too excited – the eggs are here!”
For five months every year, hundreds of students raise and release baby Atlantic Salmon into local streams. Atlantic Salmon were extirpated from Lake Ontario by 1896, and since 2006, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry have partnered to Bring Back the Salmon, a program sponsored by Ontario Power Generation with classroom hatcheries currently funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. More officially known as the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program, we and our partners use over 100 classroom hatcheries – some of which are also in libraries, correctional facilities, field centers, and information centers – to teach students and the public about environmental stewardship and engage people in this large-scale, historic restoration effort. Our main message: Atlantic Salmon were lost from Lake Ontario due to human actions, and everyone can contribute to bringing them back through habitat restoration and protection (tree planting, stream clean-ups), helping to stock fish, and spreading the word to their families and communities.
In the snowiness of January, we deliver 100 eyed eggs to classrooms from Hamilton to Kingston. Through the transparent egg membrane, the eyes and spine of the developing salmon are clearly visible, and the kids never seem to believe that there are in fact 100 eggs. The eggs are placed in a clear incubation tray so hatching can be observed; the next developmental stage, called alevin, emerge with large yolk sacs attached to their bodies. When the alevins are released from the incubation tray, they immediately hide in the gravel at the bottom of the tank and are sometimes not seen for days. The cold water temperature of the tanks (4 °C) matches winter stream temperatures, so these fish don’t need to be fed; instead, they use the nutrients in their yolk sac for development. This is not a pet store aquarium. These fish don’t swim around looking pretty. These are wild fish in their habitat, and so the setup mimics the natural stream environment, where it’s dark and cold, with no food, and instinct tells the fish to hide because everything wants to eat them.
As we head into May, temperatures begin to rise, food is present in the streams, and it’s time to release the fish. The alevins have absorbed their yolk sac, transforming from ungainly blobs to svelte little fry, ready to start feeding in the streams. We collect the fry from each classroom tank and meet the kids at a local restoration stream. One by one the kids take the net and release the fry, often naming them as they swim away – sometimes after pets, loved ones no longer with us, or perhaps a favourite movie character (there are a lot of Nemos swimming around). As the kids reflect on the journey ‘their’ Atlantic Salmon must undertake and think back to the curriculum-linked lessons they’ve experienced while hosting the hatchery, they develop a sense of stewardship towards the environment – after all, it now has ‘their’ fish in it.