Copper River Record March 2015
By Robin Mayo
What do you say when you find a whole salmon, complete with slime, head, and guts, on your school desk? If you are a Copper Valley kid, you know exactly what to say: “HOW INTERESTING!”
Recently, 3 groups of local students found salmon on their desks instead of pencils and papers. WISE helped Sandy McMahon’s 5th grade class, and a group of homeschool students at Upstream Learning investigate the 5 species of Alaskan Salmon, their life cycle, and external and internal anatomy as they dissected whole Copper River Red salmon. At Slana, the whole school took part in an all-day “Salmon Extravaganza” which included learning, games, fish printing, and dissecting. Retired Kenny Lake School teacher Carla Schierholt led the sessions for WISE with pizzaz, sharing not only her knowledge, but also her endless enthusiasm for learning and all things fishy.
We traced the salmon life cycle including eggs, alevin, fry, smolt, adults, and finally spawners, who lay the eggs and guarantee the continuity of the circle. Students learned that salmon use many parts of the river system, including lakes, creeks, the Copper River, tidal estuaries, and the ocean. We learned and practiced the sometimes confusing double names of Alaskan salmon species: King aka Chinook, Red aka Sockeye, Silver aka Coho, Pink aka Humpie, and Dog aka Chum.
Then the fun began as the salmon came out of the coolers. We kept them on ice and treated them gently so they could still be consumed afterwards. External anatomy came first, including the specific function of each type of fin. When we came around to the adipose fin, the small one just ahead of the caudal fin (tail) on the back, Carla surprised and delighted the students by singing out “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Uh!” (Although the adipose fin does not appear to help the salmon swim, it does store some brown fat, and is also used by hatcheries to mark fish.) We also found plenty of chances to learn big words to impress our friends and family next time we are harvesting fish. Did you know the flap covering the gills has a fancy name, the operculum? Or that slime gives the fish protection against disease?
When the time came to cut open the fish and start investigating the internal organs, the students were coached to think like scientists, looking carefully, keeping an open mind, and exclaiming “that’s interesting” if they were tempted to say “yuck!” We removed the organs one by one, talking about the function of each one. Some were familiar, and others surprising. The air bladder, if removed very carefully, can be inflated with a straw and tied off into a balloon of sorts. The “blood line” against the backbone at the top of the abdominal cavity is actually the fish’s kidney. When cleaning fish, we are used to scraping out the guts as quickly as possible, so it was fun to take our time and investigate.
Students and teachers alike came away from the classes with an appreciation for the amazing salmon that we sometimes take for granted. WISE is grateful for Copper Valley Electric Association Community Foundation and Copper Valley Telecom for their support of our In-Class Science Program. Whole fish for the project were donated by Mark Johns, Tim Sundlov, and the Shorten Family.
Joelle Scribner, Sherri Scribner, Kenton Scribner, and BethAnne Henry work together to dissect a Copper River red salmon
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.