"It's gooey and slimy," said Courtney Reed, 13, a seventh-grader at Assumption Regional Catholic School, as she stood beside a lab table and peered over a dissected Eastern oyster with her classmates.
For the first time, the Galloway Township school is taking part in Project PORTS: Promoting Oyster Restoration through Schools - an education and community-based program created by the Cousteau Center at Bridgeton and the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory of Rutgers University and partner organization the American Littoral Society.
"Everything lives on each other, so if these (oysters) die, other things might die," the student said.
Although she put it simply, the significant decrease in numbers of the bivalves that grace New Jersey's waters is an issue worth addressing, said Lisa Calvo, a marine scientist and the program's coordinator.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fisheries were at their peak and harvesting 1 million to 2 million bushels per year - each bushel containing about 300 oysters, she explained.
Due to overfishing and the spread of some oyster diseases, the species has seen staggering reductions.
Now, about 70,000 bushels are collected per year, she said.
Project PORTS, which carries on throughout the spring, works to encompass all grades and all areas of the curriculum.
On a recent visit to the school, Calvo, with the help of Rutgers University graduate student Jenny Paterno, demonstrated a dissection of the species, allowing students to examine its anatomy.
"You said these things are alive, right?" one student asked, probing its gills. One table discovered a pearl hidden beneath the oyster's muscles - a rare find, Calvo said.
Andy Ngo, 13, and his group found a live crab and worm living inside their specimen.
"We were lucky," he said, adding that the hands-on activity was more beneficial than reading and taking notes.
Science teacher Sheryl Cordivari explained that the school will implement a new generation of science standards into its curriculum within the next year.
The Galloway resident recognized the experiment that day as great introduction into the new laboratory-focused course work the school hopes to adopt.
"People can tell you how to drive a car, but there's nothing better than getting behind the wheel and doing it yourself," Cordivari said.
Students learned of the purposes an oyster serves, from its plankton consumption to its ability to provide shelter to other ocean inhabitants. As a keystone species, an oyster also filters water as it feeds, improving water quality just by existing.
Initiated in 2007, the restoration program, which identifies five to 10 partner schools in the area each year, culminates with a shell-bagging project.
On a date in April or early May, the group of students will intercept shell waste before it reaches landfills in order to construct a settlement surface for young oysters, called spat, to attach to.
In late June, the bags of shell will be deployed into the Delaware Bay, and any student can volunteer to be a part of the experience.
Calvo said incorporating young students into the project not only benefits the overall sustainability efforts, but sparks an interest in science among the younger generation - "it's never too early," she said.
Vice Principal Katrina Finan said the dissection project created an excitement among students, who have become increasingly interested in taking part in the latter end of the project.
"They like to be a part of something," she said, "like they are saving the planet."
Calvo agreed that children are particularly receptive to sustainability and Earth-friendly activities, and said the oyster project is a unique approach, compared with turning off the faucet or picking up litter.
"Kids are really in tune with wanting to be environmental stewards and wanting to take care of the Earth," she said, "and this just gives them another example of not such a common thing."
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