Aquariums in the Classroom program graduates its 2024 class

Fish release marks major milestone
By Samuel James Adams

On February 1st, 2024, a group of high school students from Solano County gathered at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers for a memorable graduation ceremony.

They stood beside their teachers, researchers from UC Davis, and a bucket containing the honorees of the event: thirty-five tiny slightly bewildered fish, members of the Spinning Salmon Release class of 2024.

For months, the Chinook salmon had been both classmates and objects of study for the students at Rodriquez High School. Students there and in twenty-three other classrooms in Solano County and beyond have observed the salmon since they were eggs through the Aquariums in the Classroom program.

Students monitored and documented mortality rates and observed the behavior of the fish over five-minute intervals to help researchers understand Thiamine Deficiency Complex, which was discovered in local watersheds in 2020. Their findings may unravel the mystery of what’s making salmon spin—and how that spinning might be stopped. (“Spinning” is a catchall term for the erratic, corkscrew motion associated with TDC.)

Peggy Harte attended the event and worked with teachers to keep spirits high for students who were saying goodbye to the adorable animals. Peggy is the Youth Education Program Manager at UC Davis’s Center for Community and Citizen Science and was central to the creation and implementation of the program, which began in 2021. She noted that recent storms had improved conditions for the release, with cloudy weather, murkier water, and less boating activity on the rivers.

Later this year, students will learn whether the fish they observed had the genetic marker for TDC or not. But standing at the shore they celebrated an important milestone: the year’s first release of winter-run salmon.

Students transferred the small fish from buckets to cups and then into the waters where the fish would undertake the defining journey of their life, a route through rivers, estuaries, and on to the churning Pacific beyond.

Most of the tiny salmon were in the fry stage of life but a few of them had not yet “unzipped,” meaning nutrient-rich yolk sacks still hung from their bodies. Most salmon will enter the food chain sometime on their way to the ocean. The few who survive and return fully grown to spawn will offer valuable data about a pressing concern for California’s watersheds and fisheries.

In March, groups of high school students will go out to Rush Ranch and take docent-led hikes where they will apply their knowledge of watersheds to the West Coast’s largest brackish marsh and its surrounding estuaries.

The Spinning Salmon program came about through the UC Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science, working in collaboration with researchers at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. These parties collaborated with the Solano County Office of Education to put tanks in local classrooms.

In addition to an immersive, approachable, and socially useful science project, the Aquariums in the Classroom program helps students learn about a range of career opportunities working in fisheries, watersheds, and conservation. Solano Land Trust is proud that the lands and watersheds you protected are part of this outstanding project.