Fish in Schools program celebrates salmon release

After raising sockeye salmon from eggs to fry since January, students from seven West Kootenay elementary schools released the fish into Slocan Lake during a ceremony on May 13 on Slocan Beach.

240 students, Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) elders, community members, and sponsors gathered to offer their prayers and songs to the young fish entering the wild for the first time.

The event is part of ONA’s Fish in Schools (FinS) program, which supports the reintroduction of salmon to the Columbia River system. It is also a comprehensive fish education program that provides classrooms with 100 eggs and all the necessary equipment to raise sockeye salmon from hatchlings to fry.

Not only does the program teach students about the salmon life cycle and empower them to become advocates for the fish, it also highlights the significance of salmon to the Syilx people. Zoe McMillan, field technician with FinS, said the program is a tangible way to see reconciliation in action.

“I think certain aspects of reconciliation can be a little bit difficult, but this is something real,” she said. “After we delivered all of the eggs to the schools, we did an hour-long presentation for each classroom. Seeing the enthusiasm on the kids’ faces and seeing them really understanding the responsibility and honour that comes with raising these fish and helping the environment is really cool to see.”

In January, schools are provided with special fish tanks that keep the water at mountain stream temperatures. And then they wait.

“They need to be kept in the dark for the first few months,” said McMillan. “The kids can peek a tiny bit, but they’re not allowed more than one minute of light into the tank.”

Even after three months when they finally hatch into alevin – the newly spawned salmon that still have their yolk sacks attached – the fish need to stay in the dark.

“Once they’ve used up all the nutrients and their little fins start to develop and they start swimming around, the cover can be taken off and they can see the light of day,” said McMillan.

The fry need to be fed often, about three times a day, McMillan said. But now the students can watch them grow and help prepare them for life in the wild.

About 100 people also attended a release ceremony at Burton Creek on June 6, with students from Edgewood, Burton, and Nakusp Elementary Schools.

Rachael Lesosky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice