MACHIAS, Maine — Knee-deep in mud, a handful of Washington Academy students recently slogged across the clam flats along the Machias River estuary just under the Rim Road Bridge in East Machias.
The tide was out and the mud swallowed their efforts. Often falling, always covered in slimy tidal ooze, the students were digging out plant pots that were seeded earlier this year with tiny clams.
Dr. Brian Beal was right in the middle of it all, clothing smeared with mud, pulling students out when they become stuck, hauling a tote filled with the pots along the flats and providing direction and learning.
The goal? “To create an excitement about science,” Beal said. “While it may look like I’m seeding clams, I’m actually seeding students.”
Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, received a three-year $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in late 2010 and is well on his way to building a coastal studies curriculum for Down East students.
“The goal is to make the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics real,” he said, “and encourage students to enter those fields of study.”
When it is not under way on coastal mud flats, the program is centered at the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research on Great Wass Island. UMM is partnered in the effort with Washington County Community College, University of Maine Sea Grant Program, the Downeast Institute, Maine School Union 103 and the Moosabec Community School District.
Beal used some of the grant funds last year to build a 1,200-square-foot state-of-the-art marine education center and classroom at the Black Duck Cove location of the Down East Institute, UMM’s field laboratory on Great Wass Island.
“We can have workshops for teachers, field projects with classrooms of students,” he said. “We are very, very excited, and we hope that excitement gets the kids excited about science. The center is 100 feet from the ocean. We could be in midlecture about, say, worms, and can tell the kids, ‘Hold on. Let’s go get one.’”
The center also provides state-of-the-art space for scientists from around the world, Beal said, which could expose UMM students to projects and instructors they otherwise would not have encountered.
For the hands-on portion of the grant, Beal used local students. Last May, elementary students “planted” the half-inch-long clams in plastic pots, then older students submerged the pots in the flats in June. Some were covered with a protective mesh while others were left unprotected. The pots were evenly distributed at the high, mid and low tide lines. Earlier this month, the pots were dug up and assessed at a lab at the University of Maine at Machias.
Those same students that trudged through the flats at East Machias carefully rinsed each sample pot and recorded the data. “Two of 12 alive,” one called out. “All dead,” called another. They marvelled at the rate of growth — more than an inch in some cases.
Beal used the opportunity to explain that many of the samples had been destroyed by green crabs, which were introduced along Maine’s shores in the 1950s and are the greatest predator of clams. Rinsing the mud off one sample pot and discovering only shards of shells left, Beal excitedly said, “Look at this. Mayhem at the high tide line.”
Several said they had a much greater appreciation for those who work the clam flats for a living, while others said the project gave them a different, more open view of science.
Beal has been working this year with five local schools — Beals Elementary, Jonesport Elementary, Bay Ridge Elementary at Cutler, Washington Academy at East Machias and Jonesport-Beals High School.
“This brings a hands-on element to the curriculum and introduces local students to local marine resources,” he said. “Can you believe that some of these kids have never been on the clam flats in their lives?”
Beal said four locations were seeded with experimental pots — Cranberry Cove in Beals, Flake Point Bar in Jonesport, Little Machias Bay in Cutler and near the Rim River Bridge in East Machias. Beal hoped to determine how juvenile clams grow and survive when planted near the high-water mark, the midtide mark and low-water mark and how their growth and survival are affected by protection from predators at each tidal height.
“It was great fun getting the kids to see and learn about a local resource that most had never thought about before, and their experiences on the mud flats, I’m sure, gave them a better appreciation of how difficult it is to earn a living from clamming,” Beal said.
All of the students involved in the project will hold a Marine Science Field day at Jonesport-Beals High School on Friday, Nov. 4. “There, they will share the results of the experiment from their flat with others and learn how each group of children presents that information,” Beal said. “Some will have posters, some will make up a poem, some will sing, and so on. It will be great.”
Data and analysis
Are you curious about the results of the Rim River Bridge experiment? Dr. Beal shared his data with the Bangor Daily News:
• High tide without protective netting: Survival = 11.1 percent, growth = 7.1 millimeters
• High tide with netting: Survival = 69.4 percent, growth = 9.2 millimeters
• Midtide without netting: Survival = 5.5 percent, growth = 3.7 millimeters
• Midtide with netting: Survival = 68.1 percent, growth = 10.3 millimeters
• Low tide without netting: Survival = 4.2 percent, growth = 5 millimeters
• Low tide with netting: survival = 56.9 percent, growth = 11.5 millimeters
Clam survival, independent of tidal height, was very low in the pots that received no netting. The highest was 11 percent at the high and 4.2 percent at the low. The data show that crushed clams, presumably from green crab attack, were more common than live clams and this indicates how important predation by crabs is at this site. Clams that were protected from predators using deterrent netting had survival rates that ranged from 55 to 70 percent. This shows that predators can be slowed down, but not completely eliminated from the story. The nets do a good job in keeping predators at bay but are not 100 percent effective.
Clam growth was somewhat surprising. Normally, growth rates would not differ much between protected and unprotected pots, but in each case (high, mid, and low intertidal), clams in the protected pots grew faster than those in the unprotected pots. The fastest growth observed occurred in protected pots at the low intertidal, where clams increased in shell length by approximately one half inch.