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Historically, Atlantic salmon were plentiful in the Northeast U.S. However, they are currently at 1-5% of those historical estimates and consequently are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As anadromous fish, Atlantic salmon face many challenges during their initial hatching and two years in freshwater nursery rivers; journey through the estuaries and development of seawater tolerance; and two year feeding migration that covers 4,000 miles of marine habitat before they return to their natal (birth) streams to spawn. Some of the pressures that Atlantic salmon face include fresh water predators, warming water, dams or barriers in the stream, and marine predation.

Scientists with the Northeast Salmon Team (NEST) from NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) are tasked with gathering as much information as they can on the critically endangered Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon population. These data on the critical habitat, threats, and optimal conditions required for sustainability and recovery of the species are collected to inform the team making management decisions in the hopes that the population will recover and eventually become self-sustaining.

In this lesson, students focus on the journey the salmon smolts take as they migrate "downstream" to the ocean. Students work with real telemetry data and see the various challenges these fish face on their perilous journey, the information gained from telemetry data and how we can use that information in salmon conservation. The lesson also focuses on the challenge of obstructions such as dams or roads. Not only do the fish have to either swim around the obstacle or through turbines but also artificially created pools in the river can disorient the fish and lead to increased predation as larger fish "lay in wait" for the salmon. The activity focuses on the issues with dams, asks the students to design a hydroelectric dam and bypass solution, and discusses current solutions being utilized.

Lesson Plans

Grades 5-8

Lesson Plan

Lesson Slides


Activity Sheets/Handouts

Activity 1: Telemetry Map, Data & Sheets

Alt. Activity 1: Map, Spinner & Sheets

Activity 2: Dam Worksheet


This lesson meets the following Next Generation Science Standards:

  • Grades 5-8:
    1. ESS3 - Earth and Human Activity - Students will learn how human actions have affected salmon habitat and how individuals and communities have responded to the problem to protect salmon and their habitat. They will design a method for monitoring and minimizing a dam's impact on salmon migration.
    2. ETS1 - Engineering Design - The students will define the problem caused by dams in the river ways, define criteria for a successful bypass, try out multiple solutions as a group and as a class, and then evaluate the effectiveness of each design.
  • Grades 6-8:
    1. LS1 - From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes - Use empirical evidence to show how salmon behavior impacts the probability of successful reproduction.
    2. LS2 - Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy and Dynamics - Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to the physical and biological components of the riverine ecosystem have affected Atlantic salmon populations.

Additional Resources

NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center

This program is a collaboration between the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center and Woods Hole Sea Grant.

Scientist Spotlight

Abigail ArcherAbigail Archer
Marine Resource Specialist
Woods Hole Sea Grant and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension
Abigail works with river herring in Massachusetts to track mortality and migration.

Jim HawkesJim Hawkes
Research Fishery Biologist
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
Jim uses telemetry tags in salmon smolts to monitor their movements and mortality rates.