HANCOCK — Inside a red lunch cooler, 195 salmon fry went for a ride May 1.
Their adventure began at Hancock Grammar School, where they had hatched from eggs in January, and ended at the West Branch of the Union River in Amherst.
The fry were accompanied on the school bus ride by Valerie Sprague’s fourth-grade class. Once they reached the destination, Charlie “the Salmon Man” Kelly used plastic cups to scoop the fry out of the cooler, handing them to students and their teacher to release into the river.
The project is part of the Fish Friends Program, sponsored by the Atlantic Salmon Federation, for which Kelly volunteers. Hancock Grammar School is one of about 90 schools participating statewide.
“I would like to thank you all for taking part in the Fish Friends Program,” Kelly told the students who gathered at the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery for a tour after releasing their fry. “What you have done is very important.”
Sprague said the program teaches students about aquatic environments, life cycles and the often adverse affects of human activity.
“The kids researched why the Atlantic salmon are endangered,” she said.
As a result of the program, about a dozen students have over the years pursued careers related to fish and aquatic environments, Kelly said.
The eggs are delivered to schools in January. Students measure and chart water temperature and gradually warm the water in the tanks.
“We’re trying to duplicate what Mother Nature is doing in that river,” Kelly said.
“We emphasize from day one that temperature is critical,” he continued. “We don’t want the temperature bouncing up and down.”
The aquarium is also covered with plastic foam to provide darkness, similar to that provided by ice in the winter, Sprague said.
Once the eggs hatch, the tiny hatchlings are called alevin. They have fins on the sides of their bodies that provide a food source.
“Now they crawl out of the ground and everything starts eating them,” Kelly said. This is part of why the schools’ participation is important — in their aquariums, the alevin are protected from predators.
Once the alevins’ fins disappear, the fish are called fry and must be released into a river within two weeks.
“This is as far as we can go with them,” Kelly said.
The trip to the hatchery allowed students to see fish in other stages of life — in some cases by the millions, Kelly said.
The fry transform through additional growth stages — parr, smolt and adult — spending two to three years in the river before venturing out into the ocean. The few that survive return to the river to lay eggs.
“The bottom line is there’s just not enough mother salmon getting back to the rivers to lay enough eggs,” Kelly said.
Before the class left on the field trip, Sprague quizzed students about what they were doing and what would happen to the fry.
A boy declared that the fish they would be releasing would all die.
Sadly, he was probably right. Kelly said it’s not likely that any of the 195 fry will live long enough to return to the river to lay eggs. In fact, he said, out of the 8,000 to 9,000 eggs laid by a female, only about four return.
“You can see that predators take a tremendous toll,” he said.
Sprague said she expected the students to be excited about going on the field trip. Instead, they were contemplating the loss of what they had come to see as their babies.
“They were sad to see them go,” she said.
“It’s amazing how invested these kids get,” Kelly said.