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By Carol Stiffler

Ann McFadden’s third grade class released 78 five-inch chinook salmon smolts and one chinook salmon runt into the brown waters of the Tahquamenon River on Friday, May 14. Their release marked the end of a long labor of love for McFadden and her students, who had been raising, feeding, and learning about the salmon since November 2021.

The students were “over the moon” about it, she said.

“The joy was just, I can’t even describe it,” McFadden said. “It’s the first project I’ve ever done where I had so many kids come up and hug me and say ‘Thank you for all the work you put into this.’”

There were a few tears, as well, about parting with the fish that had been a major focus of their school year.

It was an overall success, McFadden said. She received 150 chinook salmon eggs in November, and by releasing 79 smolts, said she and the class experienced a higher success rate than usually managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

“I attribute that to the top of the line materials we were able to purchase,” McFadden said. Support from Oswald’s Bear Ranch, Nicolet Bank, Duke’s Sports Shop, Rahilly’s IGA, 3207 Hair Design, Berry’s Motel, and families within the community covered costs for the 75 gallon tank, extensive filtration system, chiller, and construction of the base the tank was displayed on.

McFadden, the class, and others who supported her fed the fish up to five or six times a day, and came in on weekends to look after them. Changing the water was a careful process, with jumpy salmon threatening to evict themselves from the tank or get sucked up the siphon hose.

“I actually lost one because he jumped right out of the tank,” McFadden said. That was traumatic.

Though it was hard to lose a fish, McFadden taught the class that this was science and the fish were not pets. They didn’t name them or react emotionally after the death of any fish.

“This a living laboratory, is what I would tell the kids,” McFadden said “Real scientists don’t’ name their laboratory specimens. They are not our pets. I didn’t want to make a ceremony about the death. Instead, we explained possible reasons why.”

On the true release day, most fish sprinted away from the water’s edge, but just a few were uncertain about the new environment and pondered jumping back into the containers the kids had just poured out. No one is sure who released the runt, but he made it into the river.

The smolts will implant the Tahquamenon River, Tahquamenon Falls State Park Ranger Theresa Neil told the class. Though they weren’t born there, they will imprint the smells of the river into their brains and if they survive long enough, return there from Lake Superior to reproduce.

The success of this year’s Salmon in the Classroom has essentially guaranteed it will be part of McFadden’s curriculum for years. She has completed all legal paperwork needed to finish up this year, which makes her eligible for the program again next year.

“We are going to need donations for next year to self-sustain the program,” she said. You have to replace materials, and the release day itself was pretty expensive…We are going to be looking for donations for next year for sure.”