Hatchery/school partnership expands salmon lessons beyond the textbook


Fish hatchery specialist Joel Jaquez shows coho salmon alevins to students from Littlerock Elementary during a school field trip to Bingham Creek Hatchery near Elma. Photo by WDFW.

When high school graduates visit their old classrooms at Littlerock Elementary, one of the memories they often share is learning about salmon, said fifth-grade teacher Jim Kramer.

The lessons are possible through a nearly 35-year partnership between the school and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Bingham Creek Hatchery near Elma. Now-retired teacher, Kevin Cooper, started the program at Littlerock, later getting Kramer involved.

Each year the hatchery donates salmon for dissection in the fifth-grade science classes, and this year the partnership expanded to include a class field trip to the hatchery.

For Joe Coutu, a WDFW hatchery operations manager who oversees the Bingham Creek facility, it’s about encouraging the next generation of environmental stewards.

Littlerock Elementary students dissect a salmon during fifth-grade science class. Photo by Jim Kramer.

“Educational outreach is important in our field,” he said. “Not necessarily just in hatcheries or fisheries; it’s broader than that. It’s environmental science and understanding sustainability and leaving the world a better place. If we don’t promote these opportunities, they’re going to disappear, and we’ll see more and more folks getting away from conservation and outdoor recreation.”

The lesson typically starts in December to coincide with the winter coho run, though Kramer has also started it earlier for the fall run. In total the lesson lasts four to six weeks, including learning about different groups of fish besides salmon.

Kramer said students learn to apply the scientific method in their research and use dissection tools they’ll encounter again in middle and high school. They get to see what they’ve read about and watched on video play out in real life, including tagging and marking hatchery fish.

“We’re talking about a delicate ecosystem in the Northwestand having the field trip really brought that to the forefront,” Kramer said. “It’s part of a conversation of how the habitat is determining whether these species survive. The students come away with heightened awareness and a large amount of knowledge in terms of fish culture and biology.”

Littlerock Elementary students dissect a salmon during fifth-grade science class. Photo by Jim Kramer.

This was the first year the entire fifth-grade class got to attend the field trip to Bingham Creek Hatchery; previously, the school could only send a small group of students. Students got to see incubating eggs, juveniles, and adult salmon, learn how these fish benefit other animals and habitats, and hear from WDFW staff about the work they do.

“There was a high level of conversation and engagement during the field trip, but that also had to do with the people working at the hatchery,” said teacher Kim Randazzo. “They were so welcoming, open, and enthusiastic. It was just great to see the interactions on both sides.”

Next year, the program will again change hands. Kramer is retiring after this school year and giving the reins to Randazzo, who is in her first year at Littlerock and hopes to continue the hatchery partnership.

“It worked nicely this year to have a transition between what it had been and what it’s going to be,” Kramer said. “It’s a nice evolution from what we’ve had in the past to what’s possible in the future.”

Students sketched fish anatomy for their art projects. Photo by Jim Kramer.

Coutu looks forward to continuing to provide salmon for dissections and further improving the hatchery tour. Past years also saw students raising salmon from hatchery eggs and releasing them, something Coutu hopes to bring back if the school can secure the necessary equipment.

“Hatcheries are an excellent opportunity to show kids at a young age some of the work we do as an agency to try to promote fisheries or restore stocks of fish,” he said.

That could also spark an interest in a fish and wildlife-related career, he said.

“They could devote their time and career to working on improving environmental conditions throughout the state, nation, and world,” he said. “It gives them a better understanding of how WDFW operates and how Pacific salmon operate, but also how these fish are connected to the natural environment and how important they are as a keystone species to the Pacific Northwest.”

Salmon models hang in the school hallway of Littlerock Elementary. Photo by Jim Kramer.

The Littlerock salmon lessons extend beyond science to include art projects; students sketched fish anatomy and created salmon models to hang in the school hallway.

Randazzo said the students learned a lot in the classroom before and after the field trip.

“Getting to be at the hatchery was the icing on the cake — and the dissection, too,” she said. “That was incredible, to be able to have those salmon in the classroom for hands-on learning. It’s something that the kids will remember, for sure.”

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.