As urban areas expand, streams that support runs of salmon, trout, and steelhead get paved over, filled with silt and garbage, or even channelized. The loss of habitat for spawning and nurturing young fish results in fewer salmon and steelhead and less fish for sports and commercial fishermen. State and federal agencies are doing what they can, but sometimes it seems like sincere efforts are swallowed up by bureaucratic red tape. In response to the need, there is a growing grassroots movement all across the U.S. that is doing something to help conserve and restore fisheries. Let the kids save some fish.

Tom Furrer was born and raised in Petaluma, California, spending a lot of time roaming the area around Adobe Creek, which in the 1970s supported a steelhead run. He went off to college and came back in 1981, as a biology teacher at Casa Grande High School, which is on the southeast side of Petaluma and not too far from the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park. During his time away, Adobe Creek had changed from a living ecosystem to a dry dumping ground for trash that was declared “dead” and on the verge of being covered over.

In 1983, Tom took his students on a field trip to Adobe Creek. He spun stories about what it was like in the old days. The students responded by volunteering to clean up and save the creek. They removed over 25 tons of trash. The eyesore was gone, but that still did not solve the water supply problem as a diversion dam was restricting the flow. The students tried to lobby for the dam being taken down. However, in 1987 local officials refused requests for the water, stating they needed it for an “emergency water reserve” and for keeping a water treatment plant running in the summer.

The kids formed a club and rebounded with a brave new idea. If they couldn’t raise fish in the creek they would convert an abandoned campus green house into a student-operated fish hatchery by raising $6,000.

That next summer Tom volunteered at an Alaskan fish hatchery to acquire the skills and knowledge he would need to pass on. The students really got serious, forming a chapter of United Anglers of California–the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School (UACGHS). They looked around for grants and got some small ones, but they had big plans. So, they began a campaign of car washes, cake sales, raffles, lawn mowing, and fund-raising dinners. Their first hatchery was the old abandoned greenhouse with two 2 x 6 troughs.George Lucas has set a couple movies in Petaluma. “The Force” must have been with kids. While all this was going on, a couple students discovered an earthquake fault line ran right under the Lawler Reservoir. The city was aware of this too and had been discussing options behind closed doors. They eventually voted to abandon the system when state authorities demanded they reinforce the reservoir or abandon it. In October of 1992 Adobe Creek flowed freely for the first time in over 80 years.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG–now the the Department of Fish and Wildlife, DFW) offered to chip in $50,000 if the students would reduce the scope of their project. “No way,” was the response from the kids, saying that they would raise Chinook salmon as well as steelhead. In time, DFG gave in and almost doubled their contribution. The community then stepped in, offering contributions of materials, construction services, and manpower as well as dollars. While fund-raising was going on, the students planted over 1,200 trees a year along the banks of Adobe Creek. In six years, the United Anglers of Casa Grande raised over $510,000 through car washes, cake sales, raffles, lawn mowing, and fund-raising dinners.

The sign for the UACGHS hatchery, which was first opened in April 1993.

April 25, 1993 the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School opened the doors of their state-of-the-art, on-campus fish hatchery–one of three nationally with a federal permit–to raise endangered fall run Chinook salmon from the Sacramento River. They held a banner that read: “Together we stand. Together we dream. Together we will change the world.”

The United Anglers of Casa Grande have raised and released over 300,000 Chinook salmon to date. Since 1985, the population of returning steelhead in Adobe Creek has gone from zero to 80. The entire seven miles of Adobe Creek have been restored. A state-of-the-art fish hatchery has been established on the Casa Grande High School campus. And, the program is touching the entire community. A junior program began in 2003, targeting the elementary level. Currently there are three different schools involved in this program, with up to seven different classes involved in a school year ranging from third to fifth grade students.

The “junior” program is designed to enable high school students to teach the younger generation about what they are doing in the community. They raise the money for their own Jr. United Angler T-shirt and bus costs for field trips through cupcake sales, similar to high school students’ cake auctions.

The juniors link into the “Steelhead in the Classroom” program that allows the students to raise fish in their classrooms. The ultimate goal is to have older kids teaching the younger kids to make a difference. At the end of the year high school and junior students release some of the fish together.

An interesting irony is that the streambed plantings in Abode Creek have done so well that this year the students actually had to clear some brush to help salmon and steelhead get upstream to spawn. This is real wildlife management in action.

The program is a pure shot of relevancy into education, but its benefits go much further. A number of students who have graduated from the program have gone on to careers in conservation-related work, including one woman who was an initial member and now runs the Feather River Hatchery, the largest in California.

After 30 years of work, Tom Furrer retired in 2011. His place has been taken by Dan Hubacker, a former UACGHS student, who went off to college, got a teaching degree, came back and became a teacher.

“The students have averaged gathering between 20,000 and 40,000 fall run Chinook salmon eggs a year,” Hubacker told me. “The eggs are collected from either returning adult fall run Chinook salmon in the Petaluma watershed, or they’re provided by Feather River Fish Hatchery out of Orville, which is managed by one of the United Anglers alumni who we work closely with during the seven months out of the year when salmon are in the building.

“We have had exciting moments in the last few years when we have had a large group of adult Chinook salmon come up Adobe Creek. This species is usually found in the main branches of the Petaluma River. On two separate occasions a chum salmon has been captured by the students.”

These kids are not just running a hatchery, according to Hubacker, they began actually doing research.

“We have been tagging our Chinook salmon with a coded wire tag. This program is allowing our students to work side by side with professionals in this field. Students in 2010 tagged 18,877 Chinook salmon fingerlings–the beginning of a long-term study looking at the fish we are releasing each year. These coded wire tags are placed into the cartilage in the snout of the fish and have a corresponding code with our site. The fish’s adipose fin is removed to identify those that are tags with the hopes that if they get caught when returning the commercial fisherman or angler will notify the DFW so we can get some accurate stats of what is happening to our fish.”

The restored Adobe Creek as it is today.

In recent years there were numerous occasions in which students would be walking the creek and come back reporting seeing more and more steelhead. These sightings took on new meaning in 2012 when the DFW said that they would like Casa Grande to switch from raising fall run Chinook salmon to steelhead, helping the Dry Creek Hatchery in Sonoma County, which is run by US Army Corps of Engineers, restore the Russian River steelhead run. The school currently has 40,000 steelhead fry in the hatchery who can’t wait to make the trip to the Russian River.

Then National Marine Fisheries came along and asked if Casa Grande could help with a recovery effort for the Central Coast steelhead population, which needs help. The UACGHS hatchery business is booming.

Dan Hubacker says that in 2013 there are three classes with 70 students total working with the hatchery. And this is not an easy program to get into. There is intense competition to join the United Anglers elective class. To qualify, applicants must ace a written test and demonstrate an abundant concern for the environment.

The annual cost to run the program is about $50,000 a year, which is supported by the annual UACGHS Pasta Feed, which has become the largest fundraiser in Petaluma.

During the spawning season from January through April, female steelhead build redds (gravel nests) at the top of a riffle and lay their eggs. Dan says that in mid-February of 2013, the kids are conducting redd surveys on seven streams. Dan has recently gotten a scientific collection permit which allows him to do research and data collection on tissue samples. He says that with this new support they hope to be able to establish a strain of steelhead that’s unique to Adobe Creek.

The hatchery provides tours and the students invite the public to see how they built their dream. Children have windows at their level so they can see the students at work. If you are interested in a tour or would like to receive more information regarding the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School, please call or write:

United Anglers of Casa Grande High School
333 Casa Grande Road
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 778-4703 or www.uacg.org

Hubacker says that the Casa Grande program is now included in textbooks in Japan, and they are in contact with teachers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who seek to do create a similar program. Recently a Japanese film made a short film about UACGHS to take back to Japan.

The United Anglers of Casa Grande are a leader in a growing national program to involve schools in fisheries management. The following is a list of some other school fish programs:

Do your kids complain about what classes they want to take and why? Are they bored?

Do they really want to go school? Get together with your local school and see if they can start a fish hatchery program. If salmon and steelhead won’t work, raising bass, bluegills, and crappie might be just as rewarding.

For teachers and others interested in starting salmon/steelhead programs in schools, there is an excellent resource, courtesy of the Alaska Sea Life Center, available here (pdf).

First image courtesy UACGHS, second and third images by James Swan

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