WHS students get excited with reopening of fish hatchery programWARRENTON - Henry Balensifer and David Dyer tipped their 5-gallon buckets of fish and water into the sediment-filled Skipanon. In just a few seconds, a year's worth of work splashed into the river, and 240 young tule chinook were on their own.

It was a moment of mixed emotions for Balensifer, student hatchery director. The release marked the reopening of Warrenton High School's fish hatchery, which had been shut down in 2003 because of budget cuts. At the same time, it was a disappointing beginning. The fish mortality rate was higher than expected; only about 25 percent of their slim stock survived.

"That's bad," said Balensifer, a sophomore. "It's usually 40 to 60 percent."

But Balensifer didn't dwell on it. He knew that being able to release any fish at all was a minor miracle.

No one had expected the fisheries program - which began in 1951 with students raising fish in buckets - to reopen. That was until new principal Rod Heyen came on board. Heyen asked why the hatchery wasn't operating and what it would take to get it started. Balensifer took the lead and started prodding Heyen to let students raise fish again. Administrators found the money, and the pumps started chugging soon after.

Science teacher Steve Porter was glad to have the program back.

"Kids are so wanting to do things with their hands," he said, adding that other hands-on classes, such as shop, have been eliminated.

But by the time Porter got the go-ahead, it was relatively late to order fish eggs. The school should have placed its order in June if it wanted to have the 50,000 to 60,000 eggs it had in previous years. The Natural Resources class, which is responsible for the fish hatchery, was able to get a few: Big Creek Hatchery found 500 for the cause, and Astoria High School stepped up with another 300.

Balensifer took over management of the fish hatchery as his class project.

The fish arrived as a bucket full of eggs wrapped in a moist burlap sack. The eggs were put in heath incubators. But with an incubating capacity of 120,000 and just a few hundred eggs, Balensifer ran into problems.

The fish weren't packed into the incubator tightly, so the they were exposed to more light. Light makes fish active, and the baby chinook would swim around and chafe their bellies on the net bottom. Their undersides were rubbed raw, allowing water to come in, and the guts to coagulate. Of 800, about 150 died in the alevin stage.

"When they were dying in those incubators it was a big rush," Balensifer said.

He took samples to the CEDC (Clatsop Economic Development Council), which diagnosed the problem and explained how to put gravel and plastic in the trays to stop the rubbing.

There were other problems too, experiments that went awry and the premature release of fish in one of the tanks.

Two fish were lost to the Warrenton fishery's ritual right of passage. In the 1980s, a student started a tradition that true student fish biologists had to swallow one of their charges. Balensifer and Dyer volunteered.

"We swallowed a salmon whole. Alive. The first time it landed wrong. The second time it wiggled out. The third time it went down," Balensifer said. "It was weird. It tasted slimy and salty."

Inside the hatchery Monday, Balensifer grabbed a handful of fish food and sprinkled it in the drum so the fish could have one last meal before having to fend for themselves. Their adipose fins had been clipped the week before.

Balensifer and Dyer used nets to scoop out the fish and count them before putting them in the buckets.

"It's cool to see all the work we did get some action," Dyer said, a green net full of flipping fish in his hands.

Next year they'll likely have a lot more fish to count; 10,000 chinook, 10,000 coho and 1,000 steelhead eggs are on order.

Plans are in the works for some major hatchery improvements, such as a new roof for the hatchery building, a new storage shed, a new dock with more room for crawdad traps and a launch area for canoes so students can learn seining - a term for counting returning fish. They're hoping to get some high-tech equipment to perform brackish water studies on the river and nearby lakes. They could then choose fish that would better survive in the river's environment.

"I'm very optimistic for next year," Balensifer said. "We know what we're doing (and know) more tricks of the trade."