Sarita Cooper’s classroom at Korematsu Elementary School has no shortage of interesting creatures.
Turtles, rabbits and fish all make their homes in the science room at the Mace Ranch school.
But last Wednesday, none were as interesting as the 35 tiny pink salmon eggs that Davis resident and fly fisherman Lowell Ashbaugh brought in.
The eggs, which arrived gently wrapped in cheesecloth in a Styrofoam cup, fascinated the fourth-graders who clustered around Ashbaugh to catch a glimpse.
Once they’d all had a look, Ashbaugh gently dropped the eggs into a fish tank where they drifted down and settled into the nooks and crannies provided by the gravel at the bottom of the aquarium.
And that’s where they’ll stay.
Over the next month and half, Cooper’s students — she teaches science to seven classes in all — will get to watch the beginning phases of the salmon life cycle inside that aquarium.
Once they hatch — likely in a week or so — the tiny fish, called fry, will stay in the gravel, feeding from their attached yolk sacs for 30 or 40 days before working their way out of the gravel bed and heading for the surface. In the wild, they would begin feeding on insects. In Cooper’s aquarium, they’ll be fed by her — at least until the day arrives when they will be gathered up and taken to Discovery Park to be released into the river.
And at that point — thanks to Cooper and her students — these salmon will have a head start on survival.
Before the eggs arrived last week, Cooper showed her students a slide that demonstrated just how tough life is for salmon in the wild.
Of 2,500 eggs, for example, just 375 will become fry. Steelhead trout, in particular, love to feast on salmon eggs in the wild. Of the 375 who manage to avoid becoming fish food, some 30 will make it to the juvenile — or smolt — phase. About four, maybe five, of those smolt will survive the long journey through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to become ocean-swimming adults, and just two of those — out of the original 2,500 eggs — will become spawning adults.
But if all goes according to plan, all 35 of the eggs Ashbaugh brough to Korematsu on Wednesday will at least make it to the juvenile stage, and Cooper and her students will have done their small part for the salmon population.
“There are no predators in our tank,” Cooper told her students. “It will be dark, it will be cold … and they’ll be fine.”
The biggest challenge, Cooper said, is maintaining the water temperature in the aquarium.
The 10-gallon container must be kept at about 50 degrees, something Cooper said she struggled with before the eggs arrived last week. But with the help of some dry ice, she had the water at a perfect 49 degrees when Ashbaugh showed up with the eggs.
This is Cooper’s 15th year participating in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Classroom Aquarium Education Program, which happens locally only because of the volunteer efforts and financial assistance of the Fly Fishers of Davis.
Ashbaugh credits Adney Bowker with expanding the program in Yolo and Solano counties, where some 50 teachers are now involved — about half taking salmon eggs in the fall and the rest steelhead eggs in February.
“This program is really good for the community and the kids,” Bowker said. “We support the teachers, and the teachers and kids make it happen.”
Bowker picked up the eggs on Wednesday from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and brought them back to Davis, where volunteers took them to the 25 participating classrooms throughout Yolo and Solano counties, including nine classrooms in Davis.
On hand in Cooper’s classroom on Wednesday was the man she said “taught me everything I know about this”: Bill Storm, the school district’s instructional technology coordinator and webmaster.
Storm participated in the aquarium-in-the-classroom program years ago when he was teaching at Valley Oak Elementary School. In fact, Cooper now uses his old aquarium.
Storm, who taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, said the program fits the fourth-grade state science curriculum really well.
But it works well at all grade levels, he noted.
Sixth-graders, for example, are learning about life cycles, so this makes for a perfect add-on, he said. And even junior high and high school teachers have incorporated the program into their curriculums.
In addition to science, there is math involved, writing and even current events, like ongoing discussions related to drought, flood protection and other water issues affecting fish life.
“It’s just a fascinating addition to the classroom,” Storm said.
“It teaches them so much,” agreed Ashbaugh. “We are thrilled at this program.”
Cooper’s students were thrilled as well.
Korematsu fourth-grader Erika Dahlgren said with some pride that when she was a second-grader and her teacher was participating in the program, “only two fish didn’t make it.”
Her classmate, Elika Kiani, meanwhile, is hoping the timing works out better than it did when she was in first grade “and they hatched over the weekend,” meaning students didn’t get to see the process.
Hopefully, she said, they’ll get to watch that this time around.
Learn more about the aquariums in the classroom program at www.dfg.ca.gov/caep.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy