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Florence STEP Part 2: Conservation Group Expands Education Program In Response To Coho Loss

After losing nearly 10,000 newly-hatched Coho Salmon in February, a volunteer-run fish hatchery in Florence is regrouping.  While the loss accounted for all of this year’s hatchery Coho in the Siuslaw basin, the number represents less than 1% of the total Coho returns for the river.  

Yesterday we heard about the hatchery loss. Today KLCC’s Jes Burns reports on what the volunteers are doing to keep it from happening again.

Credit Jes Burns
Siuslaw Elementary student shows off his salmon art.

Whiteaker Creek flows swollen and muddy.  Heavy rains have doused the Coast Range east of Florence overnight and the creek is up about 2 feet in just a few hours.  

The cold water is cascading into a large metal cage along the bank.  Inside, four men in chest waders stand waist-deep in the rushing water.  And 160 steelhead, waylaid from their spawning run, weave and bump into their legs, trying to avoid dipping nets.

This fish trap is operated by Florence Step, salmon and trout enhancement program, a volunteer-run organization.  For each of the fish in the trap, the volunteers – led by Florence STEP President Ron Caputo – determines the sex, if it’s a hatchery fish, and ….

Caputo: “Recap.  It means it’s been recaptured.  We punch a little hole in their gill plates so we know if we’ve already counted them.”  

"The children have a sense of helping the salmon. And that is developing a respect for another creature, for the environment, and I think that's just invaluable."

Wild fish are released upstream so they can spawn, but Caputo says they don’t want the hatchery fish to reproduce.

Caputo: “If they’re ready, we will sometimes strip the eggs out of them and the put them back down.”

They do this by squeezing the steelhead bellies to force out the eggs and milt, or fish sperm, into the fast-moving water, where they won’t survive.  With their eggs gone, the steelhead often head back towards the ocean to start the cycle again.  

Dolly Greene's 3rd graders read a poem the class wrote about the salmon life-cycle.

This winter, classes of 3rd and 7th  graders visited the trap, with the older kids taking turns inside.  The third graders learn about fish life cycles then go back to the classroom.

Montgomery: “Hi, I’m here and I’m a fry.  I have to eat insects instead of yolk because my yolk sac is gone.”

Kayden Montgomery is a student in Dolly Greene’s third grade class at Siuslaw Elementary School.  He reads from a computer presentation he created based on the class trip to the Whiteaker Creek fish trap.

Credit Jes Burns
The Whiteaker Creek fish trap is operated by Florence STEP volunteers.

Greene’s class has written poetry, learned songs, read books, and with their art, is in the process of transforming the hallway outside into a massive salmon life cycle display.  This week the STEP volunteers will be delivering steelhead eggs to each classroom for the students to hatch.

Greene: “The children have a sense of helping the salmon.  They somehow, by raising the eggs in the classrooms that they are a part of this effort to protect the salmon.  And that is developing a respect for another creature, for the environment, and I think that’s just invaluable.”

Siuslaw Elementary students read stories written from a salmon's point of view.

Jim Grano is a retired middle school teacher and now a volunteer outdoor education coordinator for the Siuslaw School District.  He’s been working with STEP volunteers to develop hands-on education programs for 20 years, with the goal of developing environmental awareness in the next generation.

Grano: “We have probably a dozen or two dozen former students who are now in natural resources as professionals.  Or in fields like commercial fishing and things like that in the outdoors, working as foresters for timber companies.  So yeah, there’s been an impact.”

Another part of the Florence STEP education offerings is their Munsel Creek Hatchery.   John Spangler is an ODFW biologist.  

Spangler: “High school students come over, they’re engaged in the program, they’re there at fin clipping time.  So they get some biology experience.  They understand the difference between wild and hatchery fish.  And it’s a good project for the STEP group to engage with the community.”

This year, that won’t be possible.  In early February, a suspected contaminant killed last fall’s harvest of Coho eggs.  While the ecological impact of the loss will be minimal, school trips to the hatchery are canceled.  

Credit Dolly Greene
STEP Volunteer gives lesson about fish anatomy to Dolly Greene's 3rd grade class.

Strangely enough, losing the Coho actually has an upside.  It has opened the step volunteer’s eyes to yet another way to educate the next generation of fishermen, landowners and coastal residents.  Caputo and the other volunteers plan to start a run-off education campaign in the city, putting “leads to a stream” signs on curbs and storm drains in the subdivisions Along Munsel Creek.
Caputo: “Educate the public to take care of the environment and make sure anything they put on their lawn, their house or whatever is going to end up in the stream.  And make sure it’s good, safe for fish.”

In Florence and around the Northwest increased development is putting pressure on fish habitat and watersheds.  Funding for conservation from the government or other sources is far from a sure thing.  Consequently the work of groups like the Florence STEP, educating students and the wider public, will be all the more critical to maintaining fishery health for decades to come.  

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