Bellingham resident reflects on decades of salmon education

Expectation hung in the air on a cool Friday in late March as Wendy Scherrer stood at the edge of Squalicum Creek Park.

Scherrer’s eyes were trained on the road leading to the park, her stern expression transforming into one of elation as a school bus pulled up. Out poured a parade of rambunctious fifth-graders from Alderwood Elementary School, ready to release the 110-day-old Nooksack chum salmon they had raised in classroom tanks.

Scherrer is a retired science educator who has lived in Bellingham for five decades and runs the local Salmon in the Classroom program. Participating schools rear salmon eggs in classroom aquariums and release the young fry into nearby creeks in the spring.

The program is impactful because it combines this hands-on experience with science curriculum focused on the salmonid life cycle, Scherrer said. Salmon are no longer a picture on a screen, they are real animals wriggling in front of students’ faces. Habitat isn’t just a remote patch of ocean or stretch of river, it’s a stream that children pass by when walking through their neighborhoods.

“The creek they put it in is real,” Scherrer said. “They’re gonna visit it that summer, and they’ll show their mom and dad, their grandparents when they come.”

Some of the Alderwood students said they planned on returning to the creek as early as the following weekend to look for salmon.

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Environmental educator Wendy Scherrer waits for Alderwood Elementary students who helped release salmon fry into Willow Spring Friday, March 25, in Bellingham. Warren Sterling The Bellingham Herald

Scherrer’s work as an environmental educator has touched generations of Bellingham community members, and she was shocked by the number of residents who approached her this year when she was leading salmon fry releases around Bellingham.

“They were kids when they did this. They loved it,” Scherrer said. “You want to do something that people like. It gives them optimism and hope. We can do something.”

The Pacific Northwest’s salmon face an uphill battle, confronting interconnected pressures such as climate change, human development, overfishing and disease. Several species are “in crisis,” according to Washington’s 2020 State of Salmon report.

People often overlook the importance of education in solving these environmental issues, Scherrer said.

“A lot of people just want to take action. That’s OK, if you’re a fourth-grade teacher, and you want your kids to plant a tree on Arbor Day,” Scherrer said. “But is that the only thing we want the kids to know?”

A love for creeks

Before Scherrer was a passionate advocate for salmon education, she was a child tagging along with her father and brother on fly-fishing expeditions. She wasn’t given a pole, instead, she toted a willow stick that she used to poke around the creek.

Scherrer arrived in Bellingham in the early 1970s to attend Western Washington University’s College of the Environment, after a brief stint at Occidental College in Los Angeles. (She spent the latter part of her childhood in Redlands, California, after moving from New York.) She planned to study environmental education but pivoted to environmental planning because she preferred the course options.

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Volunteers from the Salmon in the Classroom program help Alderwood Elementary School students release salmon fry into Willow Spring at Squalicum Creek Park on Friday, March 25, in Bellingham. Warren Sterling The Bellingham Herald

One of Scherrer’s classes brought her on a walk from campus down to Padden Creek in Fairhaven. It was her first time wading in a Northwest salmon stream, and she was hooked.

“I started doing all the water testing and was like ‘This is my place’,” Scherrer said. “I just felt like it was home to me.”

Scherrer began her career in environmental planning, at one point helping to write the official document outlining the potential environmental impacts of Bellis Fair Mall, which opened in 1988. But when Scherrer had children in the 1980s, she decided to revive her passion for teaching.

She earned a master’s degree in science education from Western Washington University, continuing on to teach elementary students at Bellingham Cooperative School, lead courses at WWU and serve as the environmental education coordinator for the education nonprofit North Cascades Institute. She was also one of the founders of the Environmental Education Association of Washington.

Scherrer additionally helped develop the nonprofit Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, where she served as the executive director for eight years starting in 1999. To this day, the nonprofit takes an active role in restoring wild salmon habitat and educating the Whatcom community.

In 2005, Scherrer’s life changed course when she was diagnosed with a type of cancer called Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Scherrer had a stroke in the middle of a stem cell transplant, and the resulting memory loss made it difficult for her to return to work — it felt like she couldn’t hold thoughts in her head, Scherrer recalled. She retired in 2007.

“I had to reinvent myself,” Scherrer said. “I was 53 years old, you know? What am I going to do next? I’m not just going to dry up and do nothing.”

Origins of salmon program

Scherrer began teaching children piano to bring in extra money while she renewed her passion for hands-on salmon education. She had operated her own classroom tank when she taught at Bellingham Cooperative School and helped a handful of Bellingham schools obtain classroom tanks since 2000, but it was only after her retirement that she truly accelerated her efforts. This year boasted the highest number of participating schools yet, at 17.

Eggs from local hatcheries are provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which also permits each school’s tank. Schools are responsible for obtaining aquarium equipment and educational materials, and Scherrer writes grant applications and utilizes her network of community contacts to garner donations.

“A lot of these people have a lot of money, and some of them have no kids,” Scherrer said. “Why not give it to something that’s going to support schools and kids and a brick-and-mortar thing? They want to see where the money’s going.”

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Plastic cups containing salmon are ready for Alderwood Elementary students to release into Willow Spring at Squalicum Creek Park on Friday, March 25, in Bellingham. Warren Sterling The Bellingham Herald

Hatchery-raised fish are a contentious subject among salmon advocates — while hatcheries boost the number of salmon in Washington’s waters, hatchery-raised fish can interfere with the genetic diversity of wild salmon and compete with them for resources. Scherrer is an advocate for hatchery fish being used for educational purposes and to supplement native wild populations.

Teachers are busy, Scherrer said, and she doesn’t want them to have to worry about navigating that controversy. Retired community members should step up to help support educators by volunteering, if they can, Scherrer said. Volunteers put in a combined 420 hours supporting the program between January and March this year.

“As grandmas and grandpas, it’s our responsibility, really, to pick up the pieces,” she said.

Glen “Alex” Alexander is a retired education coordinator who worked at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and has known Scherrer since the 1970s. He was a volunteer at this year’s Alderwood Elementary salmon fry release, his excitement palpable as he told the restless group of students that they needed to say a heartfelt goodbye to the fish, much as they would bid a family member farewell.

Alexander is a great admirer of Scherrer’s work, describing it as fundamental to bringing hands-on salmon education to Bellingham.

“We are very fortunate to have people like that,” Alexander said. “Any city with people like that is in good hands.”

The work gives Scherrer something to wake up and be excited about.

“It provides connectivity to the environment, which I love, and to people,” Scherrer said. “I just like to see the delight in the faces of kids when they are so excited about stuff. My daughter is like ‘Why do you volunteer so much?’ But it makes me happy.”

This story was originally published May 9, 2022 5:00 AM.

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Ysabelle Kempe joined The Bellingham Herald in summer 2021 to cover environmental affairs. She’s a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and has worked for The Boston Globe and Grist.