By Jack Minch
Sentinel & Enterprise
LEOMINSTER — About 15 middle school-age children leaned way over the bank of the Millers River in Royalston to peer at the tiny fish they were releasing from three buckets Friday afternoon.
The fish were hesitant to leave at first.
“The first one got out and came back in,” said Leonardo Budzinski, 10, of Leominster.
Before long, though, all the young Atlantic Salmon swam out and darted for the bottom of the brown river.
It was the culmination of a the MassWildlife Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program that students at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster have been taking part in since February.
“Look at them, guys, they look great,” said Michael Scherer, an environmental analyst with the Department of Environmental Protection who led the program with the club’s program instructor Luci Arel.
The club got dozens of egg fry Feb. 24 and kept watch over them as they hatched and grew.
Scherer guided the students as they kept track of the water’s temperature, pH and ammonia levels while they lived in a fish tank.
He usually leads the students on nature walks on Fridays but welcomed the egg rearing program as an academic opportunity.
“It’s really to make an imprint that science and math doesn’t have to be boring, it can be exciting,” Scherer said.
“We stepped it up a little bit so we can get into the science of it,” he said.
When Bob Shaw pulled the school bus into the tiny parking lot at Birch Hill Dam the children scrambled down to the river bank and Scherer put them to work measuring the pH and ammonia levels as well as the water temperature.
He was worried because the water was supposed to stay at 50 degrees but the bus was stuck in traffic on Route 2 and the temperature rose to about 60 degrees.
Michael Whitney, 11, Barrett Stutzman, 9, and Leonardo, let the buckets bob in the river without spilling the water to cool the fish gradually before their release.
The river offered good conditions for the young fish.
“We want it to be 50 degrees and it’s 51 so it’s almost perfect,” said 10-year-old Pablo Araujo.
The pH level was 6.2 and there was no ammonia in the water.
Katrina Yang, 10, said she enjoyed learning about the fish and watching how fast they can swim.
“Salmon can lay a lot of eggs,” she said.
“To see them swimming out makes me feel good about letting them go because we know we did something great,” said nine-year-old Chloe Stutzman.
Jonathan Arel, 10, held a clipboard with statistics about water conditions and said he enjoyed taking part in the program.
“I think it’s good because Atlantic salmon are endangered,” he said.
The fish released Friday have a long journey, Scherer said.
They must make it to the Connecticut River then to the Atlantic Ocean.
If they survive for three or four years they will return upstream to spawn but must make it past the Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams.
The salmon restoration project is based in the Connecticut River and was developed by the fisheries and wildlife division with Trout Unlimited.
It is more of an educational tool than a real effort to repopulate the rivers with salmon, Scherer said.