Lesson Three

Salmon  Biology and Ecology

Standards: NGSS 4-LS1D & ESS2.E, HSS 4.2


Students will learn the life cycle of salmon and the important role salmon play in the environment.


Estimated time:

1-2 class sessions (if optional resources are used)


Activity 1: Nur Video Clip

Dancing Salmon Home Video Clip: Nur (0:34)

Activity 2: Read Excerpt (below)

For thousands of years, generations of Winnemem Wintu people lived on their river—and generations of salmon did too.

Winnemem traveled far to hunt, trade and pray, but the salmon they relied on for food traveled much further. Young, year-old fish journeyed hundreds of miles down the river to San Francisco Bay, and finally swam out through the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean, where they grew to great size. Years later the fish returned, swimming against the stream all the way back up the river to spawn and die in the same place they were born. The exhausted fish died before their own eggs hatched, but each year new young fish, or fry, repeated the extraordinary migration cycle.

Salmon are “anadromous,” meaning they are born as freshwater fish but they must transition into saltwater fish to reach maturity in the ocean. After their years at sea, salmon then return to the river where they were hatched, and in the process they must adapt back to become freshwater fish once again.

“Salmon are miracle fish,” says Winnemem Wintu leader Caleen Sisk. “Everywhere they go, at whatever stage of life they are in, they are always feeding everything around them. That’s why there have to be so many of them.”

Salmon are food for people, and also for bears and eagles, who then fertilize the forest and help trees grow. Healthy trees use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, which people breath. When salmon are gone, the entire ecosystem changes. Caleen Sisk calls the salmon “climate changers.”

Activity 3: The Magical Fish Video Clip

The Magical Fish Video Clip (5:29) – told by Chief Caleen Sisk

Activity 4: Online Research

Using online resources, research and chart the Life Cycle of Salmon.

Activity 5 (Optional): Further Connections and Activities

Activity 6: Compare Maps

Where is Run4Salmon now? Check the location and status of the event at http://run4salmon.org)

  • Students mark the progress on their California Watershed maps
  • How many miles have been covered from the start to the run’s current location?

Additional Book/Video Resources

  • The Bizarre Life Cycle of a Salmon, Strange Life Cycles series by Mark Harasymiw
  • Blastoff! Readers Level 3: Life Cycles: The Life Cycle of a Salmon by Colleen Sexton
  • Come Back Salmon: How a Group of Dedicated Kids Adopted Pigeon Creek and Brought it Back to Life by Molly Cone
  • Nature’s Great Events (2009) Season 1, Episode 2: “The Great Salmon Run” (Available on Netflix)
  • Blastoff! Readers Level 3: Animals on the Move: Salmon Migration by Kari Schuetz
  • Big Fish Dreams by Lori Fisher Peelen