Students release salmon for last time

Photo by JESSIE SALISBURY Students from Florence Rideout Elementary School in Wilton release the fish into the Souhegan River behind the screens at the Milford Drive-In Theater. High water on May 5 complicated the release. George May, left, president of the Souhegan Watershed Association, one of the sponsors of the program, stands in the rain-swollen Souhegan River to watch the salmon release.

MILFORD – In 1996, Florence Rideout Elementary School in Wilton joined the Adopt-a-Fish program. Fourth-graders raised a tankful of fish from eggs to the “fry” stage, about 2 inches long, and then released them into the Souhegan River from the gravelly shore behind the screens at the Milford Drive-In Theater.

On Friday, May 5, in a steady rain, FRES fourth-graders released the last fish raised locally in the program.

The federal restoration program ended about five years ago when it was decided that not enough salmon were returning to the Merrimack River watershed, mostly because of the many dams. The Nashua Fish Hatchery no longer raises salmon. The program was continued locally for the duration of a contract.

FRES was one of the first schools in the program, according to George May, president of the Souhegan River Watershed Association, one of the sponsors of the program. It began in about 1990 with one school in the Nashua area and spread across the region and into Massachusetts.

Liz Robbins and Alice Mitchell were the teachers when the program began at FRES in 1996. Robbins retired in 2007 and Mitchell in 2014, but both returned to help with the final release.

“It was a wonderful program,” Mitchell said. “It was so much more than just about fish.”

She cited a study of the river and the watershed, wildlife and habitats, the effects of littering and pollution on the river, and Native Americans.

“For some students, this was their first visit to a riverbank,” Robbins added. “They had never seen a wild river.”

Both agreed it was an experience the students never forgot, since former students have mentioned it to them.

In good weather, the students had time to explore the riverbank, look for crayfish and watch the birds. On Friday, it was raining too hard to allow that.

The riverbank behind the theater was considered ideal, May said. The river was wide and slow moving across a field of pebbles, giving the little fish places to hide. On Friday, the rain-swollen river made the release a little trickier.

On several occasions, the fish were released in Bedford near the mouth of the Piscataquog River.

The Adopt-a-Fish Program was an outreach of the federal Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program for the Merrimack River. Returning wild salmon were caught at the Lowell, Mass., dam, and eggs extracted and fertilized at the Nashua Fish Hatchery. Those eggs were distributed to schools, where they hatched and the fish raised to about 2 inches in length and then released.

Atlantic salmon don’t die after spawning as western varieties do.

The Parent-Teacher Organization provided the equipment, Robbins said.

A few years ago, the program used FRES students to make a promotional video.

“They were one of the first,” May said, “and it’s fitting that they are the last.”

Several organizations are looking into restoring the program, he said, and if they can’t, schools will be encouraged to switch to raising trout.

“If they do, we’ll help,” May said.