DOINews: USFWS: Japanese Exchange Student Gets Feet Wet While Spawning Chinook Salmon

Last edited 09/05/2019

A version of this message was posted Oct. 24 on the USFWS Pacific Region's blog.

By Jane Chorazy, USFWS

Fall – the time of year when Chinook salmon are making their way back up the rivers and tributaries of the Columbia River to spawn. It is also the time when students return to the classroom. On this particular morning one student entered the water – albeit with a net. Hokkaido University student Risa Ito traveled across the Pacific to study at Portland State University. As her host family, it is my privilege to introduce her to the many new experiences, places, foods and people she will encounter during her stay in Oregon.

Risa Ito is studying law but stepped right into spawning salmon at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington. Photo by USFWS
Risa Ito is studying law but stepped right into spawning salmon at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington. Photo by USFWS.

Risa's field of study is law, and although these practices may be quite different in different parts of the world, I hope she will be influenced by science and natural resource conservation when engaging in future legal practices. I would love for her to return to school with a better understanding of environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. What better way to do that then to share with her the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and how we protect and conserve fish, wildlife and their habitats.

Risa's English is better than my non-existent Japanese language skills; however there are still some things that get lost in translation. When I mentioned a trip to the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery, Risa nodded her head and said “OK.” I should have asked if she had questions because “OK” seems to be her response to most everything. Being a guest in our country, she does not want to offend and may have been shy to admit she didn't understand the details of this outing.

Spawning salmon at a USFWS hatchery is very labor intensive, and the hatchery normally requests the assistance of other USFWS employees to complete the annual process. I immediately volunteered and invited my guest to participate with me. In translating this information to Risa, we talked about this special spawning project; how we protect species and educate others about the role and value of these conservation efforts. Again, a smile, slight bow and an “OK.”

In preparation for our day trip to the hatchery, I explained what we were going to do. Risa was eager to see the facility and learn more about my job. However, I had a funny feeling that I wasn't quite communicating as my student descended the steps of our house to embark on our morning adventure. I had to smile as Risa appeared wearing shorts, open toed sandals, black Madonna Opera Gloves and carried an umbrella.

The drive from Portland east into the Columbia River Gorge lasted a little over an hour and the spectacular scenery was a boon as we headed to the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. Low level clouds soon burned off and we were treated to the bright colors of the mountains and the pigment changes on the trees as they change with the season. I saw my companion dig for her camera, trying to digitally catch the red-tailed hawk soaring over Beacon Rock.

Risa asked questions about the mighty Columbia and Bonneville Dam. As we passed the windsurfers and fisherman dotting edges of the river near Stevenson, Wash., I shared details on the work of the USFWS and salmon restoration. She gained a better understanding of fish ladders, thieving sea lions, tribal fishing rights and commercial fishing operations.

Arriving at the hatchery, we were greeted by hatchery manager Casey Risley, who introduced us to the scientists and hatchery staff and then instructed us on where we might gear up. Risa was quite impressed with the facility but that tilt of the head and confused look led me to believe that she was expecting a hatchery tour. However, Risa was undaunted and showed enthusiasm as she removed her gloves and changed into a pair chest-waders and boots.

Entering the area of the Lower Raceways – there are eight long raceways that are covered to keep the water cold and to keep out the raptors and gulls who l feed on the young salmon – we observed the set-up while Casey explained the spawning operation in detail. We were instructed to wash our hands thoroughly so as not to contaminate any surfaces or genetic material.

Risa Ito is studying law but stepped right into spawning salmon at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington. Photo by USFWS
Risa Ito soon found herself at home at the hatchery. Photo by USFWS.

The language barrier disappeared as we set to work, capturing the fish in the raceway, soaking them in the chemical bath to neutralize them, weighing, measuring and taking genetic samples of each male and female specimen. Risa was a bit apprehensive at first, but soon adapted to the routine and camaraderie shared by all the rubber enclosed attendees. Using a tagging gun to attach marking tags to the fish, Risa inserted the pin-like probe into the dorsal fin and pulled the trigger. While immobilizing the fish for her, Erik Lauver, a partner from Grant County Public Utilities District, emitted a soft “Ouch” as Risa extracted the pin from the fish. All eyes turned to look at her, then shifted to look at Erik, who had a grin from ear to ear. When the room broke into giggles it was clear, we are all the same - teasing translates into many languages and laughter can make even the slimiest job fun.

Risa communicated well with the team. She understood everything and was pleased to help. She wanted to come back but school won't wait. Spawning will be finished in a few days and then we wait until the eggs hatch. I know Risa will go back to Japan with wonderful memories and details of salmon propagation not normally witnessed by exchange students.

I learned something valuable myself; conservation is a language in itself and needs no translation. You just have to get outside and share it.

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