From life cycle to lore of salmon

Class raises salmon to learn about science, culture

Posted: Monday, February 21, 2000

Students in Matt LeGassick's science class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School were drawing salmon and writing stories last week. But it doesn't mean they've abandoned the scientific method.

The mixed-grade students have been rearing their own coho salmon in a refrigerated and insulated aquarium since November. They cut open fish at Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery and took about 500 eggs from a female and some milt from a male and mixed them together.

The students are learning about the salmon life cycle and how temperature affects their growth.

But LeGassick - whose room is decorated with life-size watercolors of salmon by Juneau artist Detlef Buettner - thought students would learn to distinguish the salmon species better by drawing them.

When the school's Tlingit cultural specialist, Daniel Brown, told the students some myths about salmon, LeGassick decided they should also draw the fish more creatively and in a Tlingit style.


Then LeGassick handed the drawings back and told the students to incorporate them into a myth that was founded in fact.

``It's just a kind of creative, fun way for them to demonstrate their knowledge,'' LeGassick said.

Brown told the students a Tlingit myth about a boy who didn't want the fish his mother offered him for a meal, disrespectfully referring to it as moldy. When the boy was trapping seagulls with snares on the water, a bird dragged him into the water, where he became a salmon.

The boy-salmon lived several years in the ocean and returned to a stream near his village, where he reappeared as a strong medicine man, Brown said.

``He learned to respect all living things. The moral of the story is walk a mile in my moccasins,'' he said.

Brown showed the students the components of a myth - character, plot, setting, hero, moral. ``I didn't tell them all this - I kept dragging it out of them.''

Shira Trick, an eighth-grader, wrote a myth about how the gods Pluo, Raino and Salo created the salmon as food for humans. Each tried to make his own fish.

Raino created a rainbow-colored fish. But Pluo said it wouldn't survive for long because every predator would see it.

Salo decided to mix all three fish together. When Pluo was taking the fish down to earth, he sneezed and the dust rose, creating the spots on a salmon.

And they called the fish salmon, after Salo, ``because if it weren't for him, they would be arguing to this day,'' Trick wrote.

The students' coho are now in the alevin stage. They're about three-quarters of an inch long and still have their yolk sac on them, which they feed from.

Students keep track of the accumulating thermal units, as measured by the temperature in a 24-hour period registered in Celsius. That tells them when the fish will move into each stage of their lives.

At 220 thermal units the fish had eyes. At 400 to 500 thermal units they became alevin, and they should become fry after about 700 to 800 thermal units.

Even though Juneau kids grow up fishing, they still have a lot to learn about salmon.

``You find out a lot of stuff that I didn't know about fish, like where they hatch and where they come back,'' said eighth-grader Paul Bennett.

Jordan Harvey, a sixth-grader, didn't know the different stages salmon go through, or that they eat their yolk sac ``and it hangs off of them for a really long time.''

At first Harvey thought the project would be easy. ``But when we got in depth, I thought, `Whoa, there's a lot of stuff I didn't know.'''

The captive coho will be fry sometime in March. In nature, the fry's parents would have died in the stream and the fry could eat them, said eighth-grader Tessina Davidson.

How will they feed their fry now that the students are their parents?

``I have no earthly clue,'' said eighth-grader Grace Dalman.

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