FIDALGO BAY — About 50 Conway School eighth-graders spent hours on the beach Wednesday at Fidalgo Bay RV Resort doing hands-on science involving fish and fish eggs.

“What do we need to do if we’re going to handle a fish?” Northwest Straits Foundation Marine Programs Manager Jason Morgan asked as the students prepared to scoop fish from a bucket to identify and measure them.

“Get our hands wet!” a chorus of voices responded.

It marked the first youth program sponsored by the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee. It’s a program the committee envisions expanding to more schools as funding allows, committee coordinator Tracy Alker said.

The program is the brainchild of committee member Pete Haase, who said that if the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee and other organizations focused on environmental stewardship are to fulfill their missions they must reach youths.

“If you don’t start young, you don’t get the seeds planted,” Haase said.

For eighth-grader Catie Couch, the experience helped her realize she likes science.

“I usually wouldn’t touch a fish, but it was actually pretty cool,” she said after conquering her fear of an eel-like fish the size of her finger called a saddleback gunnel. “I’d do it again. I like hands-on experiments and stuff.”

After she and some other students jumped back with a scream at seeing the fish, Catie gathered the courage to touch the wriggling fish and to help hold it along the edge of a measurement tool.

Catie then volunteered to release the fish back into the bay, where her classmates had caught it in a net called a seine.

Catie’s teacher, Ron Haywood, said the experience at the beach showed the students they are capable of doing scientific research.

“My goal is for them to understand the importance of science, the collection of data, providing evidence to influence the ability to make decisions based on data,” he said.

While some of the students identified and measured fish, others collected samples of gravel from dry areas of the beach and examined them under microscopes in search of fish eggs.

The types of fish seen at the beach and the number of eggs laid by fish called surf smelt are being tracked long-term by various organizations and volunteers. The monitoring is being done to determine the effectiveness of beach restoration at the resort, which is Samish Indian Nation property.

Samish Cultural Outreach Manager Rosie Cayou spoke to the students before they began collecting data.

“It’s special, this land you stand on,” she said of the importance of restoring the beach and protecting the fish in Fidalgo Bay.

The Skagit County Marine Resources Committee this year hired Mira Lutz of Anacortes to organize the youth program.

“This means a lot not just for caring about the beach, but for learning about science, about natural resources, about the land,” said Lutz, a former teacher.

About 25 volunteers from various organizations, including the Salish Sea Stewards and state Department of Natural Resources, guided the students as they collected data that will become part of the long-term monitoring effort.

Lutz said it’s been her experience that time in the field sticks with students and can improve related test scores.

“When they actually went to take their tests it was easy because they were so immersed in the process (in the field) that they didn’t really realize they were learning,” she said.

A goal of the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee’s new program is to offer the field work experience as part of a full scientific research process taught largely in the classroom.

Haase said he didn’t want students to come to the beach to see that fish can be caught in a seine. He wanted them to see it as part of a larger scientific process.

“There are a lot of programs in Skagit County that get kids out learning about nature, but they’re not in-depth and don’t go back to the classroom,” he said.

Lutz said the students learned in early April about beach restoration done at the resort and the importance of forage fish such as surf smelt in the food web. They then posed their own research questions.

The students will now analyze the data they gathered, determine what it means for their research questions and present their findings in May.

“They’re excited that it’s real scientific work, real data that has a lot of meaning,” Haywood said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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