WARRENTON — Clippers in hand, a line of Warrenton High School students spent their last class Monday snatching salmon fingerlings out of plastic buckets and snipping off the adipose fins, the ubiquitous mark of a hatchery-raised fish.
The students, part of Steve Porter’s fisheries biology class, are preparing more than 20,000 salmon for release in the Skipanon River starting next month from Warrenton High Fisheries Inc., a nonprofit-funded and mostly student-operated hatchery.
Warrenton’s hatchery received 20,000 Chinook, 6,000 coho and 500 steelhead eggs late last year from Big Creek Fish Hatchery near Knappa through the Salmon Trout Enhancement Program. After losing between 3,000 to 4,000 as eggs early on, students are clipping the fins of 500 fish a day, hoping to release them all between community events next month and graduation in June.
“If you screw up in this class, things die,” said Porter, who puts prospective students through a panel interview and essay the year before they can enter the yearlong program at the Fisheries Research and Rearing Facility.
Porter puts his trust and the operation of the hatchery mostly in the hands of those students, whose assignment is fairly straightforward: Keep the fish alive as they grow from incubating eggs, fries, and finally, fingerlings ready to be released into the wild, where they will face numerous wild and man-made threats during their life’s quest to return upstream to spawn.
During the first part of fall semester, before the salmon eggs come from the hatchery, he takes younger students through the biology of salmon and their habitats. Meanwhile, veteran students, who have since moved up to management positions, prepare the hatchery for the eggs and arrange for the fish food.
Senior Brenton Davis, a hatchery manager, said students aim to grow their salmon fingerlings to around 1/50 of a pound each — big enough to handle the journey to sea, but not so big that the animals return to spawn before they are sexually mature.
“Around this time is when it gets scary,” senior Hunter Wilson said about the increase in temperatures, which helps both the salmon and potentially fatal bacteria grow faster.
The hatchery pulls water from rain runoff on the high school’s gym and from the Skipanon, sending it to a flume capable of holding 14,000 gallons. The water runs through an on-site sand- and UV-filtration system, before being gravity-fed into the hatchery.
Fisheries programs at Warrenton date to the 1950s, when students were raising fish in buckets under teacher Larry Ballman, but ceased in 2003 due to lack of funds.
But a modernized Fisheries Research and Rearing Facility was a 2005 student project led by Henry Balensifer, now a Warrenton city commissioner and graduate of Warrenton High School.
Balensifer brought the program back as a student manager, albeit in a deteriorating facility with a pump he estimated worked about 70 percent of the time. With extensive community support, the new facility — with new water pumps, a backup generator and the ability to rear more than 300,000 salmon at a time — was built before the 2007-08 school year.
Starting with five students in 2005, Porter’s fishery program is now a competitive draw for students seeking hands-on science experience.
And next month, the hatchery will provide the community a chance to get close to salmon.
Outside the center Monday, sophomore Brandon Williamson was busy arranging painted gutters and tubing underneath a fish tank outside the hatchery, where from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. May 13, area youths will have the opportunity to release a cup of salmon fingerlings into the wild, hopefully with a donation to Warrenton High Fisheries.
“It’ll be like a gumball machine,” Williamson said, describing the Marbleworks- or Mousetrap-like set of chutes down which salmon will slide into the Skipanon River several feet below. He dubbed the device “Salmon Cannon 3000.”