Health

Bay Area high school rescues 4,000 endangered salmon from the drought – they’ll grow up on campus

During fifth period at Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School last week, students scooped tiny, wriggling fish out of a tank.

They weren’t dealing with classroom pets. Instead, the 17-year-olds were taking care of some the state’s last remaining coho salmon at a fish hatchery right on the school’s campus. Last month, wildlife officials moved around 4,000 endangered coho to the school’s cool, indoor tanks after conditions at a hatchery in nearby Lake Sonoma became unhealthy because of the drought. The high school will receive an additional 650 endangered coho trucked in from Santa Cruz in the coming weeks.

Casa Grande students usually raise steelhead trout native to the local watershed, donated by other hatcheries as a learning experience. But this unprecedented drought year is the first time the school has ever rescued a federally endangered species with nowhere else to go.

“We have this opportunity to save coho salmon, to see that we can do it, if people put their minds to it,” said Cathryn Carlson, 17, president of a nonprofit called United Anglers of Casa Grande, which runs the hatchery. Carlson, who goes by Kate, had just put on boots and waders before hopping into one tank’s chest-deep water to scrub its windows.

In some ways, the timing couldn’t be better for students starved for in-person instruction after being away from the classroom for almost 17 months.

United Anglers of Casa Grande offers tours of the hatchery and will hold its annual fundraiser Nov. 6. For information: www.uacg.org


“One of the trainings we did as educators was how do we deal with students as far as coming off of this distant learning model and being so heavily impacted,” said Dan Hubacker, a science teacher at Casa Grande who runs the hatchery. “These kids are able to bury themselves in something that they can instantly see reward for and know that it’s right here. It’s tangible.”

Built in 1993, the classroom and attached hatchery, a slightly larger room with an A-frame roof and blue lights to avoid disturbing the fish, look like a park visitor center, with murals of mountaintop watersheds, and taxidermy grizzly and polar bears flanking the chalkboard. In addition to class, students often come in during free periods and on weekends, since the fish need their sprinkle of fish meal, enhanced with vitamins and minerals, daily. But to get near the tanks, the students first must take a prerequisite class on conservation and biology, and then ace two safety tests.

David Shabo measures young coho salmon being cared for by a group of high school students.

Photos by Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Many already plan to go into an environmental field. Carlson wants to work on the political side of conservation, and student Yessenia Oceguera, 17, hopes to get into the Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology Department at UC Davis after community college.

“Working with animals is something that’s always interested me,” said Oceguera, using a plastic pipe fashioned into a vacuum to suction fish poop from the bottom of a tank.

“I like being a part of something and feeling like I’m helping,” said Delaney Ortiz, 17. “I worry a lot about the climate.”

The fish at Casa Grande are juveniles from several genetically distinct groups of the endangered Central California Coast coho salmon that state and federal wildlife agencies are charged with keeping alive — including from the Navarro and Garcia rivers in Mendocino County, the Russian River in Sonoma County and Scott Creek in Santa Cruz County. Smaller in size than king salmon, coho used to run in the tens of of thousands through Bay Area rivers and streams, but the population has dropped to the triple or double digits in many habitats.

The fish at the high school are brood stock, which are artificially spawned at hatcheries to produce babies and keep the genetic line intact. Warm Springs Hatchery at Lake Sonoma typically houses coho brood stock — fish not released into the wild — throughout their three-year life cycle and releases the young salmon they produce into Russian River tributaries like Dry Creek. But as the drought lowered the lake to unprecedented levels this summer, the water got dangerously warm, which can cause disease and lower reproduction rates.

“Water temperatures at the hatchery reached a point in June that we had never seen before,” said Manfred Kittel of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operate the hatchery with input from National Marine Fisheries Service. “We all collectively agreed we were going to take action.”


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