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Grades K-2
Pacific salmon species, including the sockeye, spend their lives in both freshwater and saltwater. Students will learn about this phenomenon, including the salmon migration route and the fact that salmon are able to return to the streams where they were born after spending years swimming in the ocean. They will see photographs of salmon at different stages of their lives, and illustrate maps with salmon pictures . Students will conclude by performing skits showing the salmon life cycle and migration.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, life science
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 9: "The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface"
Two to three hours

Materials Required:
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Blank Xpeditions outline map of North America , one for each student or pair of students
  • Writing and drawing materials
  • Can of salmon, or another packaged salmon food or food container
Students will
  • list outdoor sources of fresh and saltwater;
  • discuss and illustrate a map of Pacific salmon migration routes;
  • view and discuss slides of salmon at different stages of their life cycle;
  • illustrate their maps with pictures of salmon during different stages of their life cycle and migration; and
  • perform skits reviewing the salmon's life cycle and migration.
Geographic Skills:

Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Ask students if they can think of types of fish that people eat. They might say tuna, sardines, salmon, or other species. List their ideas on the board.

If possible, show students a can of salmon, a package of smoked salmon, or another salmon food product. Explain that, as they may already know, salmon is one of the most popular types of fish that people in the United States eat.

Tell the class that even though many people smack their lips when they think about salmon, it's not just a food—it's also an animal that leads a very interesting life!

Write the phrases "fresh water" and "salt water" on the board. Ask students to list places outdoors where they can find fresh water. Write their answers under "fresh water" on the board. Make sure their list includes "river," "lake," "stream," and "pond"; add these words if necessary. Ask students if they know where they can find salt water. Write "ocean" under "salt water."

Ask students where they have seen fish. They might say aquariums, lakes, rivers, streams, or the ocean. Has anyone ever had an aquarium in their homes? Was the water salty or "fresh" (like the water they drink)? Can fish live in salty water? Students should realize that some fish like living in salt water, while others prefer living in fresh water. Explain that salmon are very special because they can live in both salt water and fresh water.

Give each student or pair of students a North America outline map . Then have students look at this salmon migration map . Explain that this map shows where salmon travel during their lives. Ask them to describe which part of the United States salmon live in. They should recognize that this map shows the Northwestern part of the United States.

Tell the class that this map shows the migration route of Pacific salmon, which live in and near the Pacific Ocean. Explain that some salmon live in the Atlantic Ocean, but their range is not shown here. Further explain that Pacific salmon also live in the waters off western Canada and Alaska. Have students locate western Canada and Alaska and add arrows to their maps to show that the salmon migrate from these places as well.

Have students look carefully at their maps. Do the salmon stay in the ocean, or do they go inland? They should notice that they spend part of the time inland. Explain that salmon spend much of their lives in rivers and streams that are often hundreds of miles from the ocean.

If you are able to project the computer screen onto a larger screen, or if you are able to have all your students look at one or more computers at the same time, take the class through the salmon slide show at Salmon: Spirit of the Land and Sea . [Note: If this is not logistically realistic for you, please see the option below.]

To get into the slide show, do the following:

  • Select "highband" or "lowband" ("highband" works best unless your connection is extremely slow, in which case you might want to select the optional adaptation below anyway).
  • Skip the intro.
  • Select "Saga of the Salmon."
  • Go through at least the first six slides one at a time.
As you show students the slides, read the following text to them. Pause when appropriate to discuss students' observations and questions.

Slide 1 (eggs and hatchlings): Salmon lay their eggs in streams. Their eggs hatch in the streams and look like this.

Slide 2 (baby fish): The babies grow and turn into little fish like these. They are called "fry." The fry eat tiny insects and plants. Sockeye salmon fry live from one to three years in the stream.

Slide 3 (orange salmon swimming in river): After one to three years, the fry have grown, but they are not all grown up yet. They leave the stream and begin swimming toward the ocean. They swim into bigger streams and rivers until they reach the ocean.

Slide 4 (salmon in rapids): Salmon can swim even in very rough river waters.

Slide 5 (baby fish): Scientists are trying to figure out why salmon swim to the ocean.

Slide 6 (salmon swimming in the ocean): When the salmon arrive at the ocean, they swim very long distances. They stay in the ocean for a few years. Some salmon swim up to ten thousand miles around the ocean! But the most amazing thing of all is that, later, they make their way back to the same stream where they were born. They travel to that stream to lay their eggs, and then they die.

How do they know their way to the stream where they were born? Can you imagine finding your way back to another part of the country or world? Imagine that you went to a place one time when you were a little baby. Could you get back there now, on foot and without a map? That's kind of what it's like for the salmon, except they are very good at it!

Additional slides: Go through a few more slides and simply let students look at the salmon pictures.

Option: If it's logistically difficult for you to show students the above slide show, show them these photographs of the salmon life cycle . Don't worry about the more advanced terminology (e.g., alevin or smolt), but describe where the salmon live (e.g., in streams or the ocean) during each stage.

Ask students to look at their maps again and determine where the salmon are born, where they grow into bigger salmon, and where they swim when they are adults. Discuss their ideas, reviewing what they have learned from the slide show.

Have students draw pictures of salmon in these life stages in the appropriate locations on their maps. You may want to review where the salmon pictures should go before they actually do the drawings.

Review the salmon life cycle by having students look at these photographs . Rather than focusing on vocabulary (e.g., spawning or alevin), review the appearance of the salmon at each stage. Ask students to explain where the salmon live—streams or the ocean—in each picture.

Hold up the package of salmon that you brought into class. Explain that it is not just modern people who like to eat salmon. For hundreds of years before we had canned and packaged food, people enjoyed fresh fish such as salmon. Many Native Americans lived close to the rivers where the salmon swim.

Ask students to think about how the salmon's migration pattern (i.e., returning to their streams via larger rivers) might have affected the movements and trade activities of Native Americans. Discuss how people might have altered their daily activities or moved to different locations to take advantage of the salmon migration, which generally occurs from the spring into the fall.

Suggested Student Assessment:
Divide the classroom into two sections: streams (fresh water) and the ocean (salt water). Place posters or banners in each section to label the parts of the room. If time permits, allow students to draw pictures to add to the "ambience" of each section.

Divide the class into groups of four or five. Ask each group to write and perform a skit about the life of a salmon. Their skits should:

  • describe where salmon are born and what the eggs look like;
  • describe what salmon look like and do as they grow;
  • explain where salmon go when they leave the stream;
  • describe salmon swimming in the ocean; and
  • describe where salmon go when they are ready to lay eggs.
Students should use the different parts of the room as the setting for their skits. Their skits can be funny or dramatic as long as they address the main points listed above.

As an alternative to skits, you can have students write stories about the life of a salmon. They can illustrate their stories with pictures that you display in the freshwater and saltwater sections of the classroom.

Extending the Lesson:
  • Introduce students to current theories about how salmon find their way to their streams of birth. Explain that most scientists believe that salmon use special magnetic navigation to figure out which way to travel. When they get close to the mouth of the river that leads to the stream where they were born, they begin to smell the stream's special scents. They then "follow their noses" to their home stream.

    To help students understand the concept of magnetic navigation, do this activity:

    Divide the class into pairs or small groups, and give each group a compass. If this is not possible, use one compass that can be rotated throughout the class so that everyone has a turn. Show students how to locate north with the compass. They will notice how the compass needle remains fixed as they move the compass to be aligned to the north.

    Once they figure out which way is north, they can also figure out the other directions. Allow groups a few minutes to practice locating north, south, east, and west in the classroom. Ask them to rotate the compass so that everyone gets a turn holding it and aligning the needle.

    Explain that using a compass is a very common, and very old, way for people to figure out where they are and how to get where they want to go. As students might imagine, salmon do not use compasses. They might, however, have a different sort of "compass" in their brains that tell them which directions to travel. They might remember the direction of their home stream all the time that they're swimming through the ocean.

  • Help the class go through the Salmon Challenge , a simulation where they "adopt" their own salmon and see how it fares. Older students might be able to do this on their own with less guidance.

  • Have students do the Salmon Puzzle (or another one of the simple games) at Alaska's Department of Fish and Game Web site .
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