Students release salmon as end to unique classroom project


Isaiah Villerius, in yellow, releases about 30 salmon smolts into the Rogue River in mid-May as part of East Rockford Middle School seventh graders’ Salmon in the Classroom project. Photo by CINDY M. CRANMER

East Rockford Middle School (ERMS) students ended a unique classroom experience with a field trip to the Rogue River and the release of about 30 Chinook salmon smolts into the river.

The program, Salmon in the Classroom, was funded by the Grand River Fly Tyers and involved a partnership between the seventh-grade biology classes at ERMS, the Fly Tyers and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

The Grand River Fly Tyers provided all the aquarium equipment and financial support for the program. Jeff Bryant, a seventh-grade teacher at ERMS, took the training and involved his biology and science students in the program.

“The culmination of this science project with the release of the salmon has been great,” Bryant said. “The students selected have been so excited.”

Approximately 130 students in five different classes were involved with 25 being randomly selected to attend the field trip to release the salmon smolts in the Rogue River.

Students take the water temperature as both the water in the Rogue River and in the bucket that salmon were to be released from needed to be made comparable before the salmon smolts were released as part of the Salmon in the Classroom project. Photo by CINDY M. CRANMER

The DNRE participates in the year-long program by providing the teachers who are involved in the program with training and fertilized salmon eggs from a DNRE fish hatchery. The students hatch the eggs out, feed and raise the small fry in a tank, and then release the three- to four-inch young salmon smolts into the Rogue River. The salmon will eventually make their way to Lake Michigan, where they will live for three to four years before returning to the Rogue River in Rockford to spawn.

The Chinook Salmon smolts swim around in the bucket before their release into the Rogue River as part of East Rockford Middle School’s Salmon in the Classroom project. Photo by CINDY M. CRANMER

About 200 Chinook salmon eggs were placed into the tank on November 8, 2011 and about 30 were released into the Rogue River at Richardson-Sowerby Park on May 9, 2012. Losing so many salmon in the first year is not unusual and also teaches the students a lesson about nature and survival.

“This was really fun to see them everyday and now to release them,” said Grace Kropiewnicki, seventh-grader. “I was really excited to be selected.”

Kropiewnicki said the students may see the salmon again someday, or at least maybe people like her brother who fish in the Rogue River.

A group of students in Jeff Bryant’s seventh-grade classes, who were randomly selected, attend a field trip to release salmon smolts into the Rogue River as part of the Salmon in the Classroom project. Photo by CINDY M. CRANMER

The Salmon in the Classroom program has been running for several years. It teaches students about everything from the life cycles of salmon to life history of fish to management of freshwater fisheries to the importance of the Great Lakes and fishing in Michigan’s culture to the role that salmon play with the invasive species of the Great Lakes to water quality that is necessary to the survival of salmon to other issues surrounding the Great Lakes.

Students are responsible for learning about the life cycle of the salmon, maintaining the tank, monitoring water quality levels and assisting with the release of the salmon into the river.

Wolf Schrey, founder of the Grand River Fly Tyers, said the group also came into the classroom to make presentations and taught students about various topics as part of the program including fly tying and fly fishing.

ERMS is the first school that the group has sponsored. He said it costs about $2,500 to set up a school with the equipment needed such as the aquarium. Besides Bryant’s classroom, the group plans to fund another school next year as well.

“This is going to be an ongoing project with Rockford,” Schrey said.

Several members of the group were there to share in the experience of the salmon release with the students.

John Harrison, a member of the Grand Rapids Fly Tyers, shot dozens of photos of the event, as he is a photographer when he is not working his full-time position. His photos are available for viewing or purchase at

“I did this because of my enjoyment for fly fishing and shooting the photos for the group and students was just an added benefit,” Harrison said.

“Salmon have an uncanny ability to identify by smell the water of their birth,” Schrey explained.

Since the students matched the water from the aquarium to the Rogue River temperature, as they prepared to release the young fish, the Chinook Salmon will return to the park area of the Rogue River when they spawn. Therefore, students and others can fish for the salmon in a few years as well.

Fish complete their lifecycle after spawning providing nutrients for the next generation when they die, Schrey said. It is when they return to the rivers to spawn that many fishermen attempt to catch salmon.

“This is a great experience. The kids have taken to the hands-on project with great enthusiasm,” Schrey said.

According to DNRE officials, about 145 schools—ranging from third grade through high school—participated in the Salmon in the Classroom program during the 2011-2012 school year. A lot of the classrooms get their salmon eggs from Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, which also hosts a hands-on training for teachers involved in the program.

While DNRE officials stated the program has been existence for 15 to 20 years, it is during the last several years that local groups such as the Grand River Fly Tyers have supported the program financially and it has been expanding.

About 90 members of the Grand River Fly Tyers support the Salmon in the Classroom project by attending an annual fundraiser in October, according to Terry Walker, president. “This is a wonderful program and it’s done all over the state.”

Schrey said the added bonus is that students learn about the importance of sport fishing to Michigan’s economy and culture.

“This was just a really neat experience,” Bryant said. Watching the salmon go from eggs to four-inch smolts through their life cycle is “amazing” to see.

“I think it was very cool to see the life cycle of the salmon,” said Lucy McCarthy, a seventh-grader at ERMS. “It was better to see it in person than to read about it in a book.”

“This was amazing,” said Cammi Perini, a seventh-grader who helped take the temperature of the Rogue River water to transition the fish before their release.

“I thought it was really cool because I have always had an interest in fish,” said Ryan Harrell, a seventh-grader.

Harrell job shadowed someone at Advanced Aquariums in Rockford even before the project began. Advanced Aquariums was responsible for doing the set-up in Bryant’s classroom.

“This was really amazing,” Harrell said. “I would have been devastated if I didn’t get selected as this is big in my life.” Harrell will be working at Advanced Aquariums this summer and plans to be a marine biologist.

“I have an interest in fish. I really love hands-on stuff so this was great. I tried to do as much to help as I could,” Harrell said.

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