Saving Salmon, Inspiring Scientists

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While helping to stop alarming Puget Sound salmon die-offs, UW Tacoma researchers are introducing middle-schoolers to the excitement of field research.

(Photo above: Students from Surprise Lake Middle School, gathered around UW Tacoma senior Keefe Brockman, are witnessing the dissection of a coho salmon in Tacoma's Swan Creek Park. Photo courtesy Erik McDonald.)

UW Tacoma scientists, students and local middle-schoolers are helping researchers understand a troubling threat to the health of coho salmon populations throughout Puget Sound. Their findings are contributing to an understanding of one of the most intractable challenges affecting environmental quality in watersheds like Puget Sound: toxic stormwater runoff.

Science and Mathematics Lecturer Erik McDonald is the principal investigator on a study of coho salmon in Swan Creek, near the eastern border of Tacoma. The creek is part of the Puyallup River watershed, and the study is supported by the Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI), launched in 2012 by the Russell Family Foundation. Working with McDonald is Keefe Brockman, a UW Tacoma senior studying conservation biology and ecology. Middle-school science students, from schools like Lakeridge Middle School in Bonney Lake and Surprise Lake Middle School in Milton, round out their team.

UW Tacoma senior Keefe Brockman and lecturer Erik McDonald in Tacoma's Swan Creek Park. Photo courtesy Puyallup Watershed Initiative.

The Alarming Problem of Pre-Spawn Mortality

The researchers are on a quest: to find and take water and tissue samples from coho salmon which have worked their way back to Swan Creek to spawn. Although death after spawning is part of the natural lifecycle of salmon, researchers have found greatly increased die-offs before spawning, particularly among coho salmon. Researchers want to know how common this is in the Puget Sound basin, what is causing the mortality, and why coho salmon in particular seem susceptible. If, as suspected, toxic runoff is killing the salmon, policymakers can develop strategies to control and treat the runoff, hopefully reducing the mortality.

McDonald, Brockman and their team of young “citizen scientists” find the salmon that are dying prior to spawning and alert a team led by Science and Mathematics Associate Professor Ed Kolodziej, a research scientist in UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters. Kolodziej collects and analyzes tissue and water samples from the salmon with a process called high-resolution mass spectrometry. He and his colleagues at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Washington Stormwater Center aim to identify the exact substances killing the salmon and understand where they are coming from.

UW Tacoma Associate Professor Ed Kolodziej analyzes mass spectrometry data at the Center for Urban Waters.

The work of McDonald’s and Brockman’s citizen-science team is an important addition to larger studies of Puget Sound salmon pre-spawn mortality. “Most of the studies that are quantifying pre-spawn mortality are occurring in Kitsap and King Counties and areas north of that,” said McDonald. “The Swan Creek project represents, we think, the first scientific effort to monitor pre-spawn mortality in Pierce County. Adding these data from the South Sound will help illustrate some of the variability of pre-spawn mortality that exists within this region, and that could help refine the current models that predict the frequency of this phenomenon throughout the Puget Sound basin.”

Getting 8th-Graders Excited About Science

Of equal importance to stopping the salmon die-offs is getting young people excited about science and aware of the human threats to environmental quality. Recently, the Puyallup Watershed Initiative published a story about McDonald’s project in Swan Creek, from the perspective of Lakeridge Middle School science teacher Michele Chamberlain. Below, we publish with permission the PWI story.

Lakeridge Middle School Students and UW Tacoma Scientists Team Up to Research Salmon at Swan Creek Park

The SEARCH Project increases access for K-12 students to experience scientific research

[Text and video courtesy Puyallup Watershed Initiative. Used with permission.]

As a science teacher at Lakeridge Middle School in Bonney Lake, Michele Chamberlain saw a critical need to bring her students to where science happens: right out in nature. She has teamed up with University of Washington Tacoma researcher Erik McDonald and his colleagues to expand opportunities for K-12 students to do hands-on research. By participating in data collection, students are able to gain valuable experience in actual research conditions, while the researchers benefit from the help to collect more data. As a part of the SEARCH Project, supported by the PWI’s Environmental Education Community of Interest, Michele is hoping this partnership can start bridging the gap between students and community institutions.

We asked Michele a few questions and even got a chance to go out with the researchers and students to look for salmon as part of an ongoing study. Here’s our quick Q&A with Michele… :

How did this project come about and when did that happen?

This project was the brainstorm and creation of Erik Mc Donald, who works on the [salmon] Pre-Spawn Mortality Study. I met Erik in the summer of 2015 during a workshop called "Project Search". It brought educators and researchers together for two days. We were able to share ideas, passions and as it turned out, work together to create opportunities for K-12 students.

What’s the goal for this project, both for the students and for educators/researchers?

The goal for my students is to create a sense of environmental awareness. The 8th grade Environmental Science class is a one-of-a-kind class that is part of the larger Future Farmers of America (FFA)/AgriScience umbrella of the Sumner School District. This class is an exploratory class, with the purpose of helping students become more globally aware of environmental conditions and problems and then learn to become problem-solvers.

Who is involved?

This project is guided and funded by the University of Washington. I have a class of 18 eighth graders who benefited from Erik's guest lecture and instruction about pre-spawn mortality. For this year, the Saturday field trip was optional, and we had two students with parents join us.

What would you like to see happen next for these visits?

I would like to be able to organize this field trip so that all students can participate, even if the event is on a Saturday. The guest lecturer component was incredible, but there is really nothing like being out in the field and seeing the work firsthand.

Written by: 
John Burkhardt, Jefferson Mok/PWI / December 8, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or