Fish-in-Schools program faces upstream effort to expand

·3 min read

A First Nations-run program that’s taught a generation of school children about sockeye salmon, their lifecycle and importance to the environment and Indigenous culture is hoping to restart this year stronger than ever.

The Fish in Schools program plans to relaunch this January, after a year-long hiatus.

“We’re looking at resurrecting the program, after a significant pause because of COVID last year,” says Michael Zimmer, the Fisheries Team Lead for the Columbia Field office of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. He’s the program’s supervisor in the Boundary and West Kootenay.

Zimmer recalls having to go around to dozens of schools participating in the program in May 2020, having to reclaim live fish fry from the classrooms as the pandemic closed schools.

“We had to manage in an emergency capacity to take those fish and put the program on hold,” he says. “We found foster homes for those fish till we had a release date and location.”

Despite the initial scramble, the fish fry were safely sent on their way to the ocean in June of that year, he said.

Since 2003, Fish in Schools (FinS for short) has supplied the necessary equipment and support needed for students to raise sockeye salmon from egg to fry stage in the classroom. It’s run by the ONA, who provide schools with tanks, chillers and all the other equipment to schools in the Okanagan Valley, Boundary Country, and West Kootenay.

“We need to get all of society engaged, contributing and involved,” says Zimmer. “And this is a great way to get elementary school kids understanding the life cycle of the salmon, hands-on rearing in the classroom, the cultural importance of salmon – on and on it goes, there’s so many benefits to the educational system.”

Dozens of groups, institutions and school districts contribute to make the program work, he said. The program has only grown in popularity, with 18 schools participating before the pandemic, including Lucerne School in New Denver. Nine more are being added this year and among those newcomers is Burton School.

That is, if the FinS team can find everything they need.

Global supply crunch

While most of the program’s supplies would be commonly stocked in the average pet store, it's another matter for the special chiller needed to keep the water at the perfect cool temperature (less than 5°C) for the salmon to hatch. They’re special-made for the ONA, and Zimmer says the fabricator is having a hard time finding all the bits and pieces needed to build enough machines.

“They’re custom-made by a company out of Vernon,” he says. “All the components come from different places around the globe. I was talking to the builder, he has stuff coming from Brazil, Mexico, China, and they’re all subject to the huge supply chain crunch.”

And there’s a time crunch too. The chiller manufacturer may not be able to get all the chillers finished until mid-January, about a month later than the program usually gets underway. Zimmer says the best practice is to get the tanks cold, filtering and running properly before Christmas, to give the systems time to settle before adding the fish eggs the first week school’s back in January.

“There’s all these steps that have to happen sequentially, and the chiller is one of the challenges,” he says. “But we are going to do our best… the ones who’ve participated before, we can set up and have them running before Christmas. But the new ones… we’ve told them not to get their hopes up too-too high, but with the plan we have it should all work out.”

Zimmer says if all goes well, they’ll be returning tens of thousands of fish fry into local river systems – the big release point is in Penticton – at next summer’s solstice in June.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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