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Cle Elum students get close-up look of spawning salmon

By Zach Smith
Daily Record
The Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program teaches students from about salmon.

By the end of the year, sixth-graders at Walter Strom Middle School under the tutelage of science and math teacher Dale Sweet will be well on their way to becoming salmon experts.

Throughout the course of this school year, the students will dissect salmon, raise salmon in a tank in the back of the classroom before releasing them into the Yakima River and even conduct water quality tests to determine if the fish could survive in local creeks.

“We study salmon all year long,” Sweet said. “It’s a huge part of who we are (living in the Upper County).”

However, before those lessons commence, the students had to learn about the first step in a salmon’s life cycle — spawning — which they were able to witness Tuesday on a field trip to the Cle Elum River with the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program.

Tiffany Bishop, the program’s executive director, said the environmental program educates students from Grandview to Grand Coulee on the intricacies of the Central Washington ecosystem and its wild inhabitants.

The most gratifying part of her job, Bishop said, is seeing kids get excited about nature.

“Every year, at least one group gets to see turkey vultures, an eagle, or an osprey coming down to feed,” Bishop said in an email. “The students notice the bird circling, silence falls, and they become immersed in the show that nature provides them. I love it.”

While Sweet has been taking his classes to view the salmon spawn for the past eight years, this year there was something in particular for his students to get excited about.

The students were able to witness the first return of adult sockeye salmon that started their lives in Lake Cle Elum in more than a century.

The salmon’s return to Lake Cle Elum began in 2009 when Yakama Nation Fisheries transported 1,000 sockeye from Priest Rapids Dam to the lake. The fish eventually made their way to the Cle Elum River to lay eggs. Some of those eggs laid four years ago are full-grown sockeye salmon that are now spawning in the Cle Elum River.

“It’s amazing,” Sweet said. “This is a banner area for restoring salmon runs.”

Field trip chaperone Gabe Temple also was fully aware of the meaning of the sockeye’s return to the area. Temple, father of one of Sweet’s students and a fish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, talked to the students about the significance of this once-native fish returning to the Cle Elum area.

“There’s not a lot of basins that have sockeye,” Temple said. “It’s just really cool.”

Given his profession, Temple was understandably enthusiastic about the return of sockeye to the region.

Tuesday’s field trip, however, was less about the magnitude of the return and more about getting students excited about nature — something Temple agrees with wholeheartedly.

“It’s fantastic,” Temple said, “to get kids interested in salmon and fish, and the environment in general.”

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