Students from an aquaculture program at Onalaska High School in Lewis County were joined by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife advisers, members of the Chehalis Tribe and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, on Thursday morning for the release of 35,000 steelhead and 100,000 coho salmon smolts into a local creek.

The students, led by aquaculture teacher Kevin Hoffman, adjusted the netting on the enclosure in Carlisle Lake, where the fish were raised, to guide the fish down to a tube in the corner of the enclosure that gently sucked up the smolts up and across the trail, flushing them out safely into Gheer Creek.

From there, the coho and steelhead will make their way to the Pacific Ocean, and — if all goes well — they’ll return to Gheer Creek in three to four years as adults to spawn.

“This is the first year we’re actually seeing the adult steelhead return to Gheer Creek,” said Jim Dills, manager of the Skookumchuck Hatchery and adviser to Onalaska’s aquaculture program.

While Onalaska High School has been teaching aquaculture since the early 1990s, Dills said that before Hoffman took over the program a little over four years ago, the program was mostly limited to classroom instruction — not the full hatchery program the students run nowadays.

“Throughout the year, the kids learn fish identification, they learn their anatomy, they learn their life cycle, reproductive cycle, and then we learn hands-on the rest of it,” Hoffman said.

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The Skookumchuck Hatchery provides the 35,000 steelhead and 100,000 coho as eggs, and the students raise them up to adults.

“It’s called daily fish husbandry, which is basically being a husband to the fish,” Hoffman said. “So we make sure the tanks are cleaned, that they’re at the right size, we’ll move them around from tank to tank as they grow, make sure they’re being fed their correct feed in the correct amount, just everything raising them from eggs to either adults or smolt.”

The students also raise 10,000 rainbow trout from the Mossyrock Hatchery, which are released as adults into Carlisle Lake for recreational fishing. Some of the rainbow trout stay in the school’s hatchery until they’re fully grown, and then the students take part in spawning them. “That’s where the kids get really hands-on and get to go through the whole life cycle,” Hoffman said. This year’s group of rainbow trout will be released in late April.

Students who take Hoffman’s aquaculture classes get a science credit and a career in technical-education credit, and Hoffman is working to make it so second-year aquaculture students also can get a math credit.

“The scope of what we do is actually really, really wide,” Hoffman said.

For most students, the classes are a fun way to gain a science credit.

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“It’s good to spend time outdoors,” second-year student Jacob Ahmann said. “It’s pretty cool. You get to see the full life cycle.”

Herrera Beutler helped students with the release of the coho and took a tour of Onalaska High School’s on-site hatcheries, where adult fish are spawned, eggs are hatched and fish raised until they’re big enough to go into the net pens in Carlisle Lake.

“Thank you for being part of the hatchery production in our state,” the congresswoman said to Hoffman at the end of the tour. “It’s part of the solution.”

In addition to providing the eggs, Fish and Wildlife helps with permitting and provides technical support for the program. While Fish and Wildlife only funds the program to raise 10,000 steelhead, the Chehalis Tribe donates roughly $10,000 annually to allow the program to purchase enough feed to raise the additional 20,000. The Tribe also assists with net operations and adult trapping operations.

The program also receives support from the Chehalis Basin Fisheries Task Force, TransAlta and other private companies.

“It’s been crazy, in the four years I’ve been teaching there it’s been over $100,000 in grants, probably $50,000 in donations,” said Hoffman, who is in the middle of his fifth year with the program.

There’s even been a volunteer who goes out to Carlisle Lake every morning to feed the fish. “The community is really behind these guys,” Dills said.