West Seattle volunteers help provide safety net for budget-slashed Salmon in the Classroom

(Sanislo Elementary salmon-releasing visit** to Fauntleroy Creek last week; photo by Lisa Keith)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

This week, Fauntleroy residents Judy Pickens and Phil Sweetland will finish a busy schedule of assisting hundreds of local schoolchildren with salmon releases into Fauntleroy Creek, which runs steps away from their home.

But there’s no time to rest, if they are going to be back at creekside, doing it again next year.

One day before their schedule of salmon releases ends, the gavel is scheduled to fall on the special session of the State Legislature. And with that gavel, it will be official: No state money for the program that has facilitated the releases over the years, Salmon in the Classroom.

(Judy Pickens leading Pathfinder K-8 students to the creek on May 2; WSB photo by Patrick Sand)
That means Judy and Phil’s efforts will intensify with a new “job” – more volunteer work – helping save some semblance of the program, as part of a regional coalition.

The state Fish and Wildlife Department has run the program for more than 20 years, they explain. But the first warning sounded last December – Salmon in the Classroom had no place in the slashed state budget going forward.

The program’s most familiar symbol is known to anyone who has been inside a local school (mostly elementaries) – a tank full of baby coho salmon, then finally a field trip to release them into the creek, like this one last week involving students from West Seattle’s Sanislo Elementary:

(Sanislo Elementary salmon-releasing visit** to Fauntleroy Creek last week; photo by Lisa Keith)
To be clear – the effort to keep the program alive despite the state budget cuts isn’t about some major direct action to save the salmon. This is about saving a major opportunity for raising awareness – for a generation whose responsibility it will be to engage in other efforts to make sure this vital part of our area’s ecosystem doesn’t die.

After all, Judy acknowledges, “It’s not like we are making a big impression (on the salmon population) — schools in West Seattle get 200 eggs each.” Hatchery-raised, by the way – and she notes that the hatcheries themselves release billions, elsewhere.

What they are making a big impression on, is support for saving the salmon – and raising a more-environmentally-aware generation.The tank of growing salmon also becomes the centerpiece of lessons planned by the students’ teachers, not just scientific, but also cultural, and economic.

Yet the state budget crisis is squeezing every discretionary drop, everywhere it can, regardless of how much value is yielded by a program like this. Though the cost of the program itself is estimated at around $200,000 a year – just hundreds of dollars per year for each school that participates – that’s a lifeline. In Seattle, 49 schools participate; statewide, about 500.

The biggest expense for the program, Judy and Phil explain, is the refrigeration equipment to keep the salmon’s tank water in the upper 40s; the initial investment in each one is maybe $600.

Most of the coolers that are in use now are “quite old,” they point out, and one person’s expertise has been keeping them running. The additional expense involves food for the fish, and testing equipment. Otherwise, it’s mostly run on volunteer power, including tank maintenance. There used to be further support; Seattle Public Utilities once had someone working on the program, they explain.

(January 2011 photo at Pathfinder K-8; courtesy Heidi Van Brost)
In West Seattle, the volunteer power that comes from Judy and Phil extends beyond assisting the classes once they get to the creek. Phil totes the fish from school to creek. They coordinate the schedule of schools visiting for fish releases – this month, 19 release events between May 2nd and May 27th, mostly public and private schools from West Seattle and White Center, but also a parents’ group, and a Head Start group from elsewhere in the city.

It could all go away if they let it. But they’re not going to let it. Nor are the determined people with whom they are collaborating.

“I really just wanted to save the program in Seattle,” Judy explains – but others jumped in the boat, so to speak, saying they didn’t want it to go away in their areas either.

As the Salmon Education Alliance, they and others are trying to get set up as a 501(c) (3) charitable organization, starting off with efforts focused on King County, then potentially expanding statewide. Whatever they manage to do, “Our goal is so teachers won’t notice anything has changed” when it’s time for another round of salmon-raising, and releasing, next school year.

Some of the kids in the program study more than the salmon themselves. Tomorrow, a class from Arbor Heights Elementary will be at the creek for a salmon release coupled with research their teacher has led for eight years, Judy says – tracking exoskeletons of bugs along the creek.

And yes, some of the Puget Sound coho are there thanks to the Fauntleroy releases. The Fauntleroy Creek website explains how it works:

The fry will spend almost a year in fresh water, growing into fingerlings and then smolts, ready for two years in saltwater. … Experts estimate the coho survival rate from fry to smolt in the wild is 1 percent to 2 percent. With 25 surviving out of the 1,936 released in 2009, Fauntleroy Creek habitat is in the game, at just over 1 percent.

And through continued work with the creek, Judy, Phil, and others continue to learn more about how to keep a stream alive with, and for, fish, even in the middle of a major city. (Longfellow Creek, over the ridge in the Delridge area, does not have fish releases because of federal studies being done on that waterway.) By looking at the smolts further up the creek, as well as down in the lower reaches by Judy and Phil’s home, they have learned that a significant percentage of survivors is apparently being lost somewhere inbetween. At one point, they explain, there is a six-foot drop in the area where the creek is no longer daylighted.

Fauntleroy Creek has added importance because, Judy explains, “The habitat between Lincoln Park and Vashon Island is among the richest for juvenile salmon.”

So now, they wait, for a few more days. The state funding’s demise is not in doubt, they explain, but what the state DFW won’t say until the Legislature adjourns, is whether the school programs will continue to receive salmon eggs and permits to release the fish, and whether schools will be able to keep the state-owned water-chilling equipment.

In the meantime, the 13 participants in the Salmon Education Alliance organizing efforts thus far have worked to get all the information they believe they’ll need to make sure the program can keep going without state assistance. They plan to pursue funding, and to press state leaders to make sure that even post-cuts, the state DFW can “cooperate fully” with the Salmon Education Alliance, to ensure a smooth transition for the program.

They are scheduled to meet late today, according to Judy, for an update and further strategy. We’ll let you know what happens next.

The Sanislo salmon-release photos featured in this story were shared with us by Sanislo parent Lisa Keith as a standalone contribution, but it seemed to us as if they belonged in this story, which was in the works when she sent them last week. She also included this text, which seems germane to the story:

“5th grade teacher Shannon Crowley worked again this year with super creek steward Judy Pickens to bring lessons on conservation into the classroom and then out into the real world. Shannon’s class, along with John Apostols’, have been raising 150+ salmon in a large tank located in Sanislo’s main hallway from eggs they received a few months ago. The entire school has been watching the baby salmon’s progress with interest. It seems fitting that our 55 graduating kids, who will soon be ‘released’ into the big world of middle school, released the salmon hatchlings into the big world of Fauntleroy Creek with excitement and enthusiasm. Both the kids and the salmon did great. It’s probably safe to say the parent chaperones were just as pleased to get a chance to gently send off a cup full of baby salmon into the creek as the kids were.

After some native plant identification and habitat exploration, we all headed to Judy’s home (we were the 10th out of 17 releases she is hosting!), where she generously shared her story of becoming a creek steward, answered some great questions from the kids, and encouraged the kids to look around her lovely backyard wildlife sanctuary. We were especially thrilled to find a 1 year old smolt from one of last year’s releases in the soft trap in the stretch of the creek that runs through Judy’s property. Like our kids, it’s grown a lot in the past year.

Thank you to Ms. Crowley and Ms. Pickens — they are truly some West Seattle heroines to our kids and community.”

3 Replies to "West Seattle volunteers help provide safety net for budget-slashed Salmon in the Classroom"

  • anony1 May 23, 2011 (5:13 pm)

    Judy and Phil have done so much for the stewardship of the Fauntleroy Watershed, Fauntleroy Park, and the salmon and wildlife that inhabit it. THANK YOU so very much for all that you do and the hours and hours of devotion you tirelessly give.

  • A May 23, 2011 (9:59 pm)

    Oh fun! Our preschool class was with them today releasing salmon. :)

  • JoB May 24, 2011 (7:11 am)

    this program is a great example of why education matters.

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