Blog entry Sarah Angulo Peggy Harte

Project Update: Connecting Classroom Content in Spinning Salmon Field Trips

“Bye, Spaghetti!” waved one high schooler as a tiny Chinkook salmon, so named Spaghetti, swam out of a plastic cup and into the murky Sacramento River. Across the boat ramp at Riverbend Park in Oroville, students said their farewells to the alevin in their own cups. This was the last chance for students to get an up close of the fish they spent raising in their classroom over the last 6 weeks.

While Chinook salmon already face myriad threats – from habitat loss due to dams, warming waters from drought and changing climates, pollution in runoff — there is one more to add to the list. In 2020, fisheries staff began observing unusual swimming patterns, lethargy, and increased mortality in salmon that eventually was attributed to Thiamine Deficiency Complex, or TDC. Lack of thaimine, or vitamin B1, in salmon diets is thought to be a result of “eating too much fatty fast food” as one scientist, Carson Jeffres, describes it (watch a video of him describing the project here). With a change in ocean temperatures brings a change in available food to salmon, and that shift brought abundant anchovies that salmon were mostly eating versus their typical varied diet that also includes other small fish, krill, squid, and other forage species.

The 2023-2024 school year was the third year of the Spinning Salmon in the Classroom project. This project brings students into the mix, collaborating with researchers studying the effects and treatments of TDC. High school students in Glenn, Colusa, Tehama, and Solano counties observe salmon as part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s longstanding Aquariums in the Classroom program. The eggs reared in classrooms come from the only 30 females from Feather River Fish Hatchery that are untreated for TDC. Before delivery to classrooms, scientists measure the females’ thaimine levels. Student observations on fish behavior and mortality are documented, and the data is sent to the research team. This data contributes to real studies trying to understand what levels of thaimine untreated salmon in the wild need in order for their progeny to survive.

At the boat ramp, students took note of how the color of the fish changed between the tank and river environments, and observed the small strip of orange on the fish’s bellies that indicated the remainder of the fish’s yolk sac that provided nourishment for fish in the first stage of life. These details are difficult to observe in the tanks as most of the time besides the data collection, the tanks were covered with insulation to help keep the water a consistent temperature. Caring for these fish was one step in the overall protocols, co-developed with the research team, that students and teachers took ownership of this winter.

For participating schools in the GEAR UP STEM Rural Valley Partnership Program, fall 2023 afforded students a chance to visit the hatchery where their eggs were harvested, fertilized, and first stored. Students and teachers saw the barrier dam downstream of Oroville dam that forced fish into the fish ladder and into the hatchery. Members of the research team provided an introduction to the research and walked through both the final and first life stages of Chinook salmon with students. 

Field trips to release the fish in February 2024 had students reflecting on the protocols in the classroom and how those translated to observing the ideal habitat needed for salmon at the release site. Performing a habitat assessment alongside real scientists provided a first-hand opportunity to not only learn about what actually goes into caring for these animals, but the different career pathways students could apply relevant skills and interests. How cool to be able to someday add “kayaking for science” to a resume?!

GEAR UP students from Willows High School also organized a field trip to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, which is the home to major research on TDC. Some of the researchers collaborating with the Spinning Salmon project perform their research in the very lab students visited. This exclusive behind-the-scenes opportunity was a chance for students to meet more of the researchers, learn about the different science involved in studying TDC, and experience being in a real scientific lab. 

To further connect classroom learning to local communities, additional field trips with community-based partners are planned to take place this spring. We’re thankful to these partners, including Solano Land Trust, Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District, The Nature Conservancy’s Dye Creek Preserve, and the Resource Conservation District of Tehama County, for collaborating on these additional field trip opportunities. A huge thanks to participating researchers, schools, and students for making these fish release field trips happen! 

Log in