Ben Beckwith, a blond-haired and bespectacled sixth-grader, may only be 12 years old, but his enthusiasm for harvesting salmon matched the size of the burly Suquamish Tribe fishermen he worked alongside on the Stephie J.

“Get ready, here’s another one coming!” Beckwith yelled, tossing a large adult chum salmon across the deck to his Chief Kitsap Academy classmates on board. One of them scooped up the fish and tossed it in a large blue tote.

The kids, participating in the school’s Ocean to Table program, were experiencing what it takes to be a tribal fisherman in Puget Sound. That includes donning oversized yellow rain slickers and orange gloves to handle the slippery fish on this rainy October morning.

With the help of tribal fishermen, tribal council members, teachers and peers, the middle school and high school students received a week of messy, hands-on opportunities to learn how salmon get from ocean to table.

“We’re making them do the work and they’re really engaged,” said Lucy Dafoe, the school’s principal. “They’re fishing, gutting, filleting and really learning. I love listening to the laughter and interactions too. It’s wonderful to hear that as part of the process.”

The harvested fish were taken to Suquamish Seafoods where the students learned how to fillet a salmon either by using the seafood company’s auto-fillet machine or the traditional way, by hand. Then fish were then cut into 4-inch-wide strips and placed in a dry brine overnight.

The next day the kids rinsed the fish and hung them, six at a time, on 18-inch-long cedar sticks. The fish dripped dry for a few hours before being placed in the smokehouse.

After four days of smoking, most of the students visited the tribe’s Kiana Lodge kitchen, where general manager Jay Mills taught the kids how to can the smoked salmon. A quarter cup of olive oil and fish went into each jar, which was sealed and placed in a pressure cooker. The canned salmon was distributed to elders during Thanksgiving week; the rest vacuum sealed for gifting later.

Mills and the teachers made certain the kids did each step correctly to prevent contamination.

“After all this hard work, you don’t want to screw it up at this point,” Mills said.

While some of the students had never canned fish before, others were well-versed from canning with their families for years.

“For me, it’s learning about culture,” said Keilah Andrews, who has family from Nooksack. “I have some native relatives so this will allow me to connect with them on another level.”

“I’ve done this this numerous times with family,” said Talon Capoeman-Williams, Quinault. “It’s fun because I know how to do this, so I can show them and explain it in a way they would understand.”

The school is working to ensure the activities are not a one-time event, Dafoe said.

“We do a clam bake monthly and had the kids experience a sweat lodge,” she said. “But we want to make sure we repeat these activities so they learn from them and their skills remain sustainable.”

A video of the students learning the process can be viewed here.