Lobsters, clams, games and more at Down East Institute’s annual field day

Posted Aug. 28, 2010, at 5:34 p.m.

BEALS, Maine — Lobsterman Dwight Carver, his boat idling on Western Bay off Jonesport and Beals Island, hauled up a lobster trap from 60 feet below the salty surface.

“Ooo,” the group of children on the boat said in unison as the trap broke the surface.

“It’s full!” one shouted.

Pulling out his catch, Carver explained how to measure a lobster, tell its sex and band its claws. Each child had a turn at the wheel, a move that left some adults a bit dizzy because of the youngsters’ maneuvers.

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The tour and lessons were part of the Down East Institute for Applied Marine Research’s annual field day on and around Great Wass Island on Saturday. The day also celebrated the completion of DEI’s new educational facility at Black Duck Cove in the town of Beals.

It was sea spray and touch tanks for hands-on learning as adults and children handled horseshoe crabs, lobsters, starfish and clams during the event.

Inside the research center, beakers, bottles and colored, bubbling tubes looked like they belonged in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab but turned out to be incubators for seven varieties of phytoplankton — food for sea clams and juvenile lobsters grown at the research center.

Science and fun were the order of the day at the institute, which specializes in coastal studies of sea clams, lobsters and snails.

Buoyed by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create a working waterfront classroom on Great Wass Island for Down East schoolchildren, the institute has a variety of research projects under way.

DEI has more than 2,000 feet of deep-water frontage and two working lobster pounds. It has converted the property’s former lobster tank building to a production and research shellfish hatchery and running seawater laboratory. The new education center was completed recently as an addition to the existing facility.

DEI Director Brian Beal of the University of Maine at Machias said one key study is looking at the feasibility of seeding European oysters into Down East clam flats.

“We are attempting to create a culture fishery in Down East Maine for this species,” Beal said Saturday. He said European oysters first were introduced in Maine in the late 1940s to offset heavy losses in the soft-shell clam industry.

He said the oysters hold promise for the area, and he is looking for fishermen and aquaculturists to help document the success of seedbeds.

Another research project includes the study of containment farming of lobsters.

“If you put a goldfish in a 5-gallon pail, it will stay pretty small,” Beal said. “But if you put it in a very large tank, you have a much bigger fish — a perch.”

Beal said DEI is studying what effect container size has on lobster development. He also is studying why Maine’s lobster population has increased by 140 percent in the past decade.

“If you were to ask five fishermen and five scientists why there are currently so many lobsters in Maine, you would get 10 different answers,” Beal said. “But for the future of this industry, we need to know these answers.”

Beal, a professor of marine ecology at UMM, also is partnered with Washington County Community College, University of Maine Sea Grant Program, the Down East Institute, Maine School Union 103 and the Moosabec Community School District to create a curriculum for coastal schools based on marine science education.

“The goal is to get students excited about careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” Beal said.

If the children attending Saturday’s field day were any indication, excitement is high.

The children marveled over an albino lobster, a blue lobster and a hatchling lobster so small it rested in the bowl of a teaspoon. Visitors learned to “fly” clamshells, found clams in a sandy pool and peered through microscopes at minuscule clams.

DEI conversion of a former lobster facility into a marine education center and classroom will allow delivery of teacher workshops and summer marine science institutes for youth, Beal said, as well as increase the scope of marine education offerings to UMM undergraduates.

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