High Schoolers Get Their Hands Dirty At Shellfish Lab

By: Kira Barrett

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Shellfishing

Outside the shellfish lab are (from left) Heinz Proft, Samantha Mahoney, Kestrel Powers, Delia McNamara and Aidan Kotoski. COURTESY PHOTO

HARWICH PORT The Wychmere Harbor Shellfish Lab is home to hundreds of thousands of growing soft shell clams, oysters, quahogs and mussels. Every summer since 1994, Assistant Harbormaster and National Resources Director Heinz Proft has hired three high school student interns to help run the lab for six weeks. This year’s interns are Kestrel Powers, Samantha Mahoney and Aidan Kotoski. From 8:30 in the morning until noon everyday, the interns work on maintaining the lab. Under the direction of teaching supervisor Delia McNamara, interns collect water data daily from the tubs, or “silos” that house the shellfish. They also check the dissolved oxygen and salinity levels of each silo and measure the shellfish every other week to track their growth rates.

As well as maintaining the lab, interns also conduct water sampling tests every other week, equaling a total of three times over the course of the six-week long program. They sample all of the surrounding harbors, including Wychmere, Allen and Saquatucket.

“The kids are so enthusiastic and bright,” Proft said. “After a few days, they can run the lab.”

The lab operates on what they call an “upweller system”. The silos each hold roughly 25,000 soft shell clams, oysters, quahogs or mussels. Water filled with plankton is pumped from Wychmere Harbor into them. As the shellfish feed on the phytoplankton, the water is then filtered through a screen at the bottom of each silo and back into the harbor.

The internship is open to high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors. In order to apply, each student must write an essay explaining why he or she wants to join the summer program. “In all the years I’ve done it, I’ve never turned away someone who’s wanted to do it,” Proft said.

Rather than lecturing about shellfish harvesting, Proft prefers his interns to learn through experience. “At the beginning of the program, they’re given some definitions and short-answer questions that they’re not expected to know. Then at the end of the six weeks I give them the same exact thing and they can just write like crazy,” he said.

The program was created when areas for shell fishing in town became depleted. At the time, Proft asked himself, “How can we help mother nature by raising shellfish during their kind of susceptible time when they’re really small?” And so, in 1994, the Wychmere Harbor Shellfish Lab was born.

And it has done extremely well. In addition to learning how to be responsible, to take initiative and to record data, interns are given insight into the bizarre nature of shellfish. They have learned, for instance, that over the course of the first two years while they are growing, soft shell clams are male. Because sperm is smaller than eggs, the clams are not required to produce as much energy. After the two years are up, about half of them will turn female.

But the shellfish don’t stay long enough in the lab for interns to witness it. Each generation of shellfish remains in the lab from June to October. In the fall, “they get seeded into the local recreational and commercial fishing areas in the town of Harwich. It’ll take them about two years to reach their legal size,” Proft explained.

The six-week period during which the interns work is crucial to the growth of the shellfish. They “need to be rinsed, cleaned, monitored, measured, protected and cared for,” Proft said.

Despite the intensity of the job, Proft ensures that interns still have time to enjoy their summer vacation. “They’re done by noon. Some of their friends aren’t even getting up until then,” he joked. “I don’t want it to feel like it’s a job. I want to try to teach and show them something that they might not get elsewhere.”