Ipswich River gets an oyster infusion from Marblehead Charter School students

Date Published: 
October 31, 2018
Chris Stevens
News Type: 
FMPS grant allows Shark Club members to nurse oysters
The 50,000 tossed oysters, each about an inch long, sailed through the air and splashed into the mouth of the Ipswich River recently, delivered, in part, courtesy of Marblehead Community Charter Public School students.
Building an upweller and raising oysters was the latest marine science adventure undertaken by the MCCPS Shark Club, where the mission includes exploring all things marine related. The project was funded through a grant from the Friends of the Marblehead Public Schools.
“The upweller was among our projects this year,” said MCCPS parent and Shark Club advisor Bryan Burns. “We keep coming up with new projects.”
Burns said he actually came across the upweller, which is essentially an incubator for oysters, on Facebook and thought it would be a good project for Shark Club. He reached out to the Massachusetts Oyster Project to see if he could get directions on building one “and it turned out to be a collaborative effort.”
The upweller is series of five-gallon buckets with the bottoms replace with screening. Burns said water from the harbor flowed through the buckets and out again, providing the baby oysters with the nutrients they needed to thrive. And thrive they did.
Burns said when they arrived there were 50,000 oysters, each about the size of a pinhead. They typically grow shells about a week after birth and after being nursed by students all summer, they were about 1.5 inches long when the kids tossed them into the drink.
“That happened in two and half months,” he said. “The growth rate is phenomenal.”
The oysters arrived in August via a donation from an outfit in Bremen, Maine. Burns said that was a little late in the game, oysters usually go into the upwellers in June, but it didn’t seem to affect the outcome.
Burns said students checked on the oysters regularly and had to stir the buckets daily to clear out any waste that collected among the oysters. There were also a couple of oyster sorting sessions because, Burns said, the mollusks grow better when they hang with like-sized oysters.
“They showed up daily and got their hands dirty,” Burns said.
In September, about 100 of the oysters were shipped to a testing facility to make sure they were disease-free before they were literally tossed into the Ipswich River.
Burns said they couldn’t release them in Marblehead because there have been no oyster fisheries south of Gloucester since the 1980s. He said he’s been talking with folks at the North Eastern Marine Science Center in Nahant and the Massachusetts Oyster Project about the possibility of reopening the fisheries. Locally, Burns also spoke to Chief Shell Fish Constable Jack Attridge and said he also plans to reach out to state Rep. Lori Ehrlich about changing the laws that govern such fisheries.
“Maybe that will be [Shark Clubs] next project,” he said.
Burns said the students learned a lot about oysters and the important impact they have on the environment. In New York City, they are using oysters to clean up the harbor, he said.
“One full grown oyster can process 50 gallons of water a day ... and that has an impact on everything,” he said.
Burns said they could make a connection from great white sharks to oysters to eel grass.
“It’s all really connected,” he said. “And it was all made possible by the Friends of Marblehead Public School.”
Burns said they did feel kind of bad that in dumping the oysters into the river, they were sending many of them to their death. Most would likely be eaten by green crabs or succumb to other marine life, he said.
However, folks at the Oyster Project hope that someday, the oysters might help the area absorb storm action and help reduce flooding.
The Massachusetts Oyster Project
The plan is the oysters who survive the green crabs and other predators will go forth and multiply, giving the area more naturally occurring oysters in the future.
A naturally occurring oyster population contributes to a healthy ecosystem primarily in three ways, Sarah Velentick, of the Massachusetts Oyster Project, said:
Oysters are filter feeders so they filter and cleanse the water around them.
They naturally build reefs that provide homes to other shellfish and sea creatures.
And they help absorb storm energy, reducing the effect of wave action and rising tides with the reefs they build.
When the Charter School students arrived with four plastic buckets, each half full with salt water and oysters, they were welcomed by Scott LaPreste, the Ipswich Shellfish Constable who was on hand to grant his legal blessing to the event.
The idea is to give the area the environmental benefit of a healthy oyster population more than to create a commercially viable oyster bed.
“The North Shore is more conducive to clams than to oysters,” said Valentik.
Oysters need hard surfaces, like rocks, to attach themselves to in order to survive long term and propagate. This area of the Ipswich River has what the oysters need. Naturally occurring oysters had already attached themselves to rocks and stones.
These oysters will float freely in the river mouth since oysters only attach themselves to a hard surface only once in their lives and these released oysters had already done so while the Marblehead students were raising them.
The oysters the students released in the brackish river mouth were just a drop in the bucket -- well four buckets -- but they’re a start.