One by one, the children lined up, ready to further the lifecycle of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic animals.
It’s salmon release season when elementary school students across the state scoop up the fish they’ve diligently raised in class and ferry them to a sea-emptying creek or river.
The scene at the West Hylebos Wetlands park on April 27 was a bonanza. From April 24-28, around 1,600 kids — mostly fourth-graders from Federal Way Public Schools — released approximately 3,500 Coho salmon into the waterway.
Dante, 10, was jumping for joy. Like the other kids, he got to pour one of the Coho salmon fry from a small cup down a half pipe, from where it landed into Brook Lake.
Dante said he wants to be a zoologist, veterinarian or zookeeper when he grows up and counted 360 eggs total among the salmon he and his peers were raising.
“I know every animal,” Dante said. “Almost — because every single second, there’s a new animal.”
Among them, Dante said he has a particular fondness for tigers and the elusive deep-sea dragonfish.
This is the first year since 2020 that Federal Way school district kids got to release the salmon fry in person, district spokesperson Whitney Chiang said. Staff released the fish themselves in 2020 and students watched a live video in 2022 of the release. The yearly program is a collaboration between the school district and the city.
Nine-year-old Skye named her fish “Fuzzy.”
“We raised them all year, and now we’re releasing them into the ocean,” she said.
Ten-year-old Lela said she enjoyed the release, though she found the salmon fry a bit odd-looking.
“I thought it was kind of fun, [but] … watching them slither down was kind of gross,” she said. “Even though it was kind of gross to watch, it was interesting.”
Salmon start their lives as eggs laid in freshwater streams. After several weeks or months, they hatch and quickly develop into fry, the tiny juvenile stage at which the kids released them on April 27 into Brook Lake. The lake is part of the West Hylebos Creek, which flows into the Port of Tacoma through Commencement Bay.
Those fry will hang out for about a year in freshwater streams and rivers eating bugs and plankton until becoming smolts, their young adult stage in which they prepare to migrate to the salty waters ocean.
The fish that survive will grow to maturity in the Pacific Ocean to feast on smaller fishes and typically return a year or two later to the streams of Puget Sound as adults to spawn. They finish their lives by depositing or fertilizing eggs, after which they die.
Salmon are crucial to the ecology and culture of the region. They feed legions of hungry sea lions, fish and birds, not to mention humans. Their survival improves the odds for other threatened animals that eat them, like orcas. And their vigorous efforts to swim upstream to spawn are both a source of cultural inspiration and a force for creative dam design in Puget Sound.
The trip to the Hylebos meant more than just pouring fish down a tube. Kids also spent time learning from the Puyallup Tribe and touring the hundreds-years-old trees and herbs and flowers that fill the lush wetlands. Both activities were a chance to learn the about history, present-day culture and conservation and stewardship efforts of the Tribe.
Up the trail from the release site, members of the Puyallup Tribe’s language department taught students a few words in Twulshootseed, a language spoken by more than a dozen indigenous tribes in Puget Sound.
Kids called out “Habu” to say “I’m listening,” and watched with glee as Tribe members performed “Black Bear and Ant,” a story about a slumbering black bear (pronounced shchu-twud in the Tribe’s dialect of Twulshootseed) and an ant (pronounced butch-lola).
State law requires public schools to teach the history of local Tribes, and events like the story performance let several members of the Puyallup Tribe’s language department bring that culture to life.
The mission of the Puyallup language program is to encourage the revival of Twulshootseed, Puyallup Tribe language program coordinator Nicole Sutton said. Increasing visibility and public awareness of the language is crucial to their work, which is why they work with public schools, she said.
Anyone can learn a new language at any age, but “I think the best part about teaching with the kids is they’re not afraid to make mistakes,” language teacher Heather Williams said.
Language teacher David Turnipseed added that improving visibility and awareness of Twulshootseed contributes to a more welcoming society, “where it becomes normal [for] people to hear it and speak it.”