Air Date: Week of December 13, 1996
Liz Lempert reports from the town of Westport, Massachusetts where Junior High school students have gotten involved with local bi-valves, and are trying to bring back the once-thriving scallops in this region. With a blend of awareness and activism, these students hope to help their community.
NUNLEY: A century ago the West Port River estuary in southern Massachusetts was renowned for its shellfish. As legend has it the river once teemed with so many bivalves that you could walk across the water on the backs of clams. But no more. In recent decades health officials closed down large tracts of the river to clamming and quohoguing because of high bacteria counts. Scalloping continues, but after a bumper harvest in the early 1980s the population mysteriously crashed. A few years ago 6-generation Westporter Wayne Turner decided to lead an effort to clean up the river of his childhood and restore the scallops. And with the help of hundreds of local schoolchildren, he's having some success. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert has our story.
(A boat motor starts up)
LEMPERT: This river winds through the rural town of Westport, past dairy cows, gray clapboard houses, old fishing shacks. The water looks gray in the late autumn light, like the houses and the sky. It also looks clean. Twenty-seven year old Wayne Turner says he grew up believing the river was healthy.
TURNER: I didn't recognize the fact that the river was closed to shellfishing until I was around 20 years old. It was a shock to me that here's a 3,000-acre estuary, that three quarters of it is closed to shellfish.
LEMPERT: So 4 years ago he decided to do something about it. He launched the Bay Scallop Restoration Project. At the time, Turner dredged the entire estuary and pulled up just 150 scallops, a mere half-bushel. But a few years of hard work have made a big difference. This, season Westport scallopers are enjoying their best harvest in more than a decade. They've caught over 2,000 bushels worth.
(Clunking sounds on board a boat)
LEMPERT: Out on the Westport River, fisherman John Chase pulls up his metal nets and sorts through his catch. He's scalloped in these waters for 35 years.
CHASE: It's a pretty good year. Wayne's project, I think, is helping a lot. Everyone's doing their part now, the town's really digging in and helping.
LEMPERT: Back in 1992, when Wayne Turner started up the scallop project, he had a hunch that pollution from dairy cows and leaking septic systems had destroyed the river's eel grass, the plants baby scallops like to hold onto as they grow. To bring back the scallops, he'd need to bring back the eel grass, and that's just what Turner did, in a way. He tried a simple technological fix, developed in Asia and gaining popularity here on the eastern seaboard. He built fake eel grass out of fishing line and the mesh bags used in grocery stores to hold onions. They're known as spat bags.
DORIN: He would get monofiliment from the fishermen, get it, you know, we had 3 arm's length, we'd count out and cut it and scrunch it up pretty much, split it into an onion bag like this.
LEMPERT: That's Michaela DorIn, a junior at Westport High. She's one of hundreds of local school kids Turner has turned to for help. Under Turner's supervision, the kids have assembled thousands of spat bags. The students have also helped figure out the river's food chain. A group of eighth graders found that tautogs, a local fish, eat mud crabs, and that mud crabs eat scallops. Over-fishing has depleted the tautog population, and as a result mud crabs have multiplied out of control. Turner says the scallops were overwhelmed by their mud crab predators.
TURNER: Our research is starting to conclude that a good scallop year is not necessary a good scallop year but rather a bad crab year in disguise.
LEMPERT: Turner and his student volunteers soon discovered one more thing about mud crabs. They're small enough to squeeze through the holes of an onion bag. When Turner and his students sliced open the spat bags to release the scallops, they found some bags crawling with mud crabs. Barely any scallops were left uneaten. Last year, Turner switched to a bag with a finer mesh to better protect the scallops.
BAKER: The lab that you're going to do today is to compare sponges, to compare a manmade sponge with a natural sponge.
LEMPERT: Across town, teachers have used the scallop restoration project to help educate their students about the scientific method and their local environment. Jan Baker teaches seventh and eighth graders at Westport Middle School.
BAKER: I've been really surprised how many things I can integrate. It started out with the life cycle of the scallop and, you know, pollution and how that affects it. And then we learned about predators. They're solving a scientific problem when they go out there. The problem was there's too few scallops, and then how do we solve the problem?
LEMPERT: For their part, the students say unraveling this mystery and collecting data in the river is a lot more fun than staying in the classroom and reading a book. Eighth-grader Anthony Reyes.
REYES: You always think that some things you do in school, they're like for nothing. It's like why are we doing this? But this thing is like actually helping the community. If you record something wrong or you just make up stuff, it's going to mess up all their information.
LEMPERT: A classmate, Eric Rondo, says he's making a difference.
RONDO: We're learning with our hands. We're right there working on it, and so I don't think it's really just more of like a free day. You actually have to work hard on it.
LEMPERT: Despite this year's abundant scallop harvest, the forecast for next year looks shaky. Cold weather this summer led to a late spawn and the scallops are so small some may not make it through the winter. Judy McDowell, director of the Woods Hole Sea Grant Program, says weather plays a role in determining the amount of scallops from season to season. Last year's favorable weather may have contributed to their resurgence. But, she says, weather alone can't account for the scallop project's success.
McDOWELL: Other regions this year who do not have similar programs, other regions in southeastern Massachusetts, have had poor scallop harvests. And so I think you can point to this program as an example of how to revitalize the resource. So I think their project has had great success.
LEMPERT: But the effort is far from over. Wayne Turner says he's heading upriver to get neighboring towns involved in the restoration project. As for the estuary, it's cleaner now than it was 4 years ago. Twelve hundred more acres have been reopened to shellfishing. And what the kids have learned in school seems to have percolated up to older residents in the community. One source of pollution was stopped when students fenced in the dairy cows of a farmer who agreed to supply them with materials. And in the last 3 years, over 100 local households reported broken septic systems to the Board of Health. More than half those reports came from families with kids in junior high school. For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.
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