The side of the Renton Community Center became a classroom to study water and salmon. Elementary school students gathered in clusters around stations along the Cedar River, some netting water insects, some raking and removing invasive ivy from the beach, more still were pouring river water into test tubes to see how suited the water was for the salmon passing through while enthusiastic experts and volunteers answered their questions. Small groups of the students walked to the other side of the rushing water to see a salmon dissected, just feet away from where it might have been scooped up.
Renton students learned about the salmon habitat and helped protect it as part of a World Water Monitoring Day event, Sept. 18 at Renton Community Center. About 90 students from Sartori Elementary School received a special water monitoring lesson from EarthEcho International, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the value of water as a vital resource and offers environmental education.
Environmental Science Center (ESC) Executive Director Tara Luckie said she had a partnership with EarthEcho before this event. The center’s educational program Salmon Heroes submits water quality tests to EarthEcho’s water challenge. The five-hour program teaches fourth to 12th grade students about salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
EarthEcho saw the large number of water quality tests from Salmon Heroes and reached out to ESC to learn more about what it does, Luckie said.
“It’s exciting for the kids to see they’re active scientists, they’re the ones collecting the data for all over the world to see,” Luckie said.
President and co-founder of EarthEcho Philippe Cousteau Jr. came to Renton to participate in the event. The company goes to one event each year to honor World Water Monitoring Day, Cousteau said, and came to Renton to promote the work of ESC and the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Program. One of EarthEcho’s partners, company Xylem Watermark, is headquartered in Seattle and was also at the event.
“We love to come to places where we have engaged enthusiastic supporters and participants in the (water) challenge,” Cousteau Jr. said.
Luckie said the city of Renton has embraced the center with open arms, allowing it to use the river space next to Cedar River as an outdoor classroom. The center also has programs in Auburn, Normandy Park and is headquartered in Burien, but people come from all over the country to see the spawning salmon in Renton.
It’s better for students to come be with the salmon compared to watching a video or reading it in a book, she said. For example, the dissecting of the salmon is an important way to help kids see that salmon are like us, having a heart and other organs.
“When you see a salmon in a stream in your own community, it’s so powerful,” Luckie said. “Renton is so lucky to have this resource.”
Staff at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were out on the Cedar River the day of the event, hauling salmon from the river. Some of the students were able to watch as they netted, bagged and released 30 salmon into a large water tank on the back of a truck headed to a hatchery. That day was only the second week into the spawning season.
This year was the lowest number of returning salmon since record keeping began. With just about 17,400 coming into the Ballard Locks, it isn’t clear yet how many WDFW will see through Renton this year. Staff said they hope researchers can find out where the fish went; they released 4 million sockeye fry this year into the Cedar River to make the journey into the ocean. The salmon suffer significant temperature changes between the river, Lake Washington and the Pacific Ocean.
One of the salmon escaped from the trapping device as WDFW staff were picking them up. Sartori students cheered on the WDFW employee who plodded through the coursing river to grab the stuck fish and get it back to the bagging area.
Cousteau said he sees the salmon’s plight as symbol of the best and worst of humanity: the decline of salmon habitats was directly because of human intervention, but a lot of work is being done to restore those spaces. He also thinks its fascinating how salmon are vital to the animals on land, and their DNA is intertwined with the trees.
“It reminds us that human beings create this false barrier: ‘Oh, this is land, this is water, and it’s two different things.’ But they’re not; they’re intimately entwined with each other,” he said.
Cousteau is the grandson of Jacque Cousteau, who’s known for his ocean explorations, scuba diving, filmmaking and marine conservation. Philippe Cousteau Jr. said his father also worked in documentaries and he grew up in the world of water, which is his passion. Outside of EarthEcho, Cousteau Jr spends his time creating travel shows and documentaries for channels like Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and CNN, including the syndicated series “Xploration Awesome Planet” and the show “Caribbean Pirate Treasure.” In 2015, he and his wife Ashlan Gorse Cousteau filmed Bengal Tigers for the World Wildlife Fund and Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
But his favorite work is what EarthEcho does each year, he said. While traveling around the world he said he sees a lot of the bad news, but watching and working with kids cleaning up their local waterways gives him hope.
“I firmly believe this is the key to solving the problems we have today,” Philippe Cousteau Jr. said.