By Lisa Cavanaugh
On a recent morning at Monomoy Regional Middle School, a group of fifth-graders gathered around a large table, gazing through murky beakers, peering into low water-filled plastic trays, waiting for oysters to do their stuff.
“Oysters clean the ocean by filtering it,” says Jonathan Coleman. Another student, Tyler Santoro, adds excitedly: “They can filter 100 gallons of water a day!”
These students are in a special elective class called “Oyster Flats,” taught by Michael Schaffer, the school’s English Language Learner teacher. Aided by fellow instructor J. Wyatt Sullivan, a former commercial fishermen, Schaffer began this class last fall as a way to bring service learning to students and expose them to practical ways of sustaining and protecting local estuaries.
Schaffer, who offers the same class to a group of sixth graders on alternate days, has a strong nostalgic reason for wanting to teach his students about a healthy marine ecosystem.
“I grew up on the Cape,” he says, “and I can remember in the 1980s, you could go in the fall to Red River Beach in Harwich and fill a five-gallon bucket with bay scallops in five minutes, including the walk to your car. Now if you want bay scallops you pay 30 dollars for half a pint and they come from Nantucket.”
His idea was to involve his students in a local oyster reef rebuilding effort.
“Oysters are a cornerstone species. If we can get the oyster beds going again they will provide some stability for the area,” he says. “Other animals in the ecosystem will improve. The oyster reefs protected us, they had a purpose.”
With the support of Principal Mark Wilson, Schaffer created a curriculum that teaches basic concepts of shellfish propagation, analyzing data, conducting field research and assisting the Chatham Shellfish Department’s remote-set shellfish reef and net-protected shellfish beds projects.
In the fall, his students planted 250,000 baby quahogs at Mill Creek. Santoro was one of the kids who helped and he admits it was rough going: “My boot popped as we were working. We raked and then put down safety nets to protect the quahogs from invasive species like green crabs, and put the seed in a layer under the nets,” he says.
His father and grandfather are both shellfishermen, and while he isn't certain he will follow in their footsteps he was eager to sign up for the class. “I wanted to find out about preserving the environment that we are losing rapidly,” he says. “We are trying to bring a population of oysters back on Cape Cod creating artificial reefs in places where they used to be.”
Today, he joins the rest of the class as they take printed worksheets and hold them behind each beaker to check for turbidity, the suspended particles that reduce water clarity. Live oysters, obtained from Aquacultural Research Corporation in Dennis, have been placed in water mixed with cornstarch, which is an organic substance they can eat. “In a perfect world these oysters are going to clean this water,” says Schaffer, as he lifts a bag of spare oysters.
“So what are we trying to do by summer?” he asks the class.
Cassandra answers softly. “Plant more oysters and build a reef.”
“In the estuary,” adds Seamus St. Pierre who, like Santoro, comes from a fishing family.
“Correct,” says Schaffer. “And what will that do?”
“The water will be clean,” offers Cassandra.
Schaffer was especially interested in getting newly arrived students from other countries into his oyster class. “One third of the class are English Language Learners,” he says. “We want them to be integrated into their community, to become part of Harwich, part of Chatham. Some of these kids don’t even go to the beach. They live here in town but aren’t part of that experience.”
Next Schaffer picks up a baggie of dark grey material. It is a mixture of water and Ryder Cove clay. “Can the oysters eat clay?” he asks.
Coleman answers, “No, if there is a lot of clay the oysters might die.”
“That’s right,” Sullivan says. “Oysters use their gills to breathe. When they are filtering food they are using their gills, but if there are too many particulates in the water their gills would get clogged up and they would suffocate and die. The dirtier the water the harder for oysters to survive.”
Sullivan, who is a Special Education Assistant at the school, is from Eastham, where his brother Trent is a shell fisherman. They spearhead an effort to further develop Eastham’s aquaculture industry, to try and get it to a level closer to Wellfleet or Orleans. When Schaffer mentioned he was launching the Oyster Flats class, Sullivan immediately volunteered to help. “If we can get our kids here to buy in to preserve our waterways and estuaries, then long after me and Mr. Schaffer are gone they will continue that legacy.”
Class is winding down as Schaffer points to a large quahog shell on the work table.
“Can anyone tell me what this is?”
The students seem to know, but are shy about responding.
“That shell there. Anyone?”
“It looks like a quahog?” suggests Santoro.
“It is a quahog!” says Schaffer. “We planted 250 thousand of them, remember, at the beach in the fall, when they were the size of a tic tac.”
A girl in braids squinches her fingers together. “They were that small,” she says.
“And in three years they will be that big,” adds Schaffer, indicating the mature shell.
It is all part of an ambitious goal to return Mill Creek and Taylor’s Pond to a pristine state, suitable once again for year-round clamming. “This is the service learning component to the class,” Schaffer says. “They identify a community issue and study it -- there is some scientific rigor -- and then they work towards addressing it.”
The bell rings. The chatter of exiting students fades as Sullivan and Schaffer clean up papers, beakers and shells.
“Not everyone loves school, so the idea is if we can build something that is concrete, that ties kids into the community, then that has real meaning.” Schaffer says. “We have some sixth graders who without a doubt will be able to get a job in the field. One boy from the Dominican Republic has already made some good connections with Renee and Rachel (Chatham Shellfish Warden Renee Gagne and Shellfish Propagation Specialist Rachel Hutchinson) and he can even ride his bike down to where the upwellers are.”
“It’s our first year and we are taking baby steps. We’ve raised money from the Nauset Garden Club and Cape Cod Five which allowed us to buy the spat,” Schaffer says. “So it’s small, but we are thinking big. We are modeling our project on the Billion Oyster Project in New York City.”
“If we can expose these kids to the environment,” says Sullivan as he helps clean up, “and to what clams and oysters do for us, maybe it will continue a cycle of conscious living on Cape Cod for years to come.”