Sustaining and Protecting Our Local Estuaries

BY Michael Schaffer

Monomoy Regional Middle School

Project Description
In the coastal estuaries of Chatham and Harwich, development over the past several decades has resulted in the buildup of substances, such as excessive nitrogen. This causes blooms of phytoplankton that inhibit sunlight from reaching deeper waters where eelgrass grows, along with other vegetation and animal life that serve as barometers of health for our coastal ecosystems. When that occurs, water quality falls below the level needed to sustain marine life. Two local water bodies serve as protected areas for growing commercially viable shellfish like oysters and quahogs: Taylors Pond and Mill Creek are protected areas that contain a tidal salt marsh that is experiencing changes due to natural tidal processes, as well as to the human environment interactions. The goal of the project is to improve the water quality in the designated area through the use of native shellfish. The objective will be to create a natural shellfish population that will filter the water and remove excessive nitrogen. Quahogs and oysters filter the water as they feed. Quahogs filter up to 25 gallons of water a day and oysters can clean up to 50 gallons of water a day. Also, the shellfish trap nitrogen in their shells and when the shellfish is harvested, the nitrogen is removed from the ecosystem. The activity will be that we will work with the town of Chatham’s shellfish department and raise shellfish from seed to mature animals. Using a protective net system and bags of clam shells we will clean, sort, measure and protect from predators and allow a crop of shellfish to grow to maturity.

How will the project be evaluated (e.g. how will you gauge its success)
The project will be evaluated two ways, one will be based upon the shellfish themselves. For instance, have the shellfish survived the season? What is the mortality rate? Have any reproduced? How has the survival rate been increased by using netting and bags to protect young animals? Have other animals benefited from the shellfish beds we have cultivated? Has there been any improvement in water quality? The second way we will evaluate the project is the progress the students have made academically. Have the become more integrated into their community? Have they followed through on the learning objectives set by the course and instructors? Have they been engaged? Have the skills they learned transferred to other areas of their lives?

Benefit to the students and the school
The students will gain citizenship and intellectual skills. They will be able to identify, describe, and explain a matter of concern to the life of the community (i.e. advancing commercial ventures / preserving recreational opportunities/protecting water quality). They will be able to perform effective research (the roles shellfish play in commercial, recreational, and environmental matters). They will be able to communicate clearly and effectively with a specific audience (publish an article in the local newspaper about our collaborative work). As participants in this project they will gain citizenship participatory skills and connect with community representatives (Chatham Shellfish Department, Chatham Shellfish Company, Mass Audubon). They will be able to communicate differing perspectives (recreational, commercial, environmental). They will also take informed action (plant, tend, harvest, and broadcast shellfish to improve water quality; educate others about the ecosystem), along with the ability to analyze water quality (dissolved oxygen, temperature, Ph, turbidity, and available nutrients at Chatham Shellfish Upweller)

The school benefits by having a student population that has respect for others (i.e. perspective and empathy with regard to to recreational use, commercial use, and environmental sustainability). A group that has the ability to self-reflect (academic learning and personal growth). Lastly there will be an established school-community partnership with the Chatham Shellfish Department.

Timeline of Project (when will you do the project, if applicable)
In November we are meeting at the areas designated by the town of Chatham’s Shellfish Propagation Department to clear and plant an area for oysters and quahogs. They will supply the initial immature shellfish for seeding. At least once a month, more during the growing season, we will be in the field, maintaining the shellfish we planted and monitoring the water quality. We will also prepare and plant new shellfish beds when the new batch of spat arrives in early spring. Over the summer we will continue to monitor the progress of the animals. We expect this project to be ongoing, but our initial plan is a three year study.