By Isabelle Desilier and Chelsea Sullivan and Zoya Naqvi
The Moriches Bay Project, an environmental nonprofit that teaches students how to build oyster cages to help filter chemicals out of a local bay, will be working with five schools by the last week of February.
Nearly 60 students from East Moriches Elementary and West Hampton Bay built eight cages out of swimming noodles and nets last month. Each cage can house 1,000 adult oysters that will filter an estimate of 80,000 gallons of water daily.
“It was such a rewarding, positive, and interactive experience,” Madison Gunderson, a fifth-grade teacher from East Moriches Elementary School, said. “I hope to educate more students about their community and how to keep their waterways clean.”
Moriches Bay has been identified by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State Department of Environmental Conservation for having too much nitrogen in the water, which can cause an overgrowth of algae, killing marine life.
The nonprofit uses oysters because they filter toxins and excess nitrogen out of the water without any harmful side effects.
Money raised at a Moriches Bay Project fundraiser last Thursday could help their goal in bringing 500,000 more baby oysters in the bay this spring when student-made cages begin harboring the oysters.
“Making the cage is very simple, but you have to follow a regimented process,” Aram Terchunian, director and co-founder of the Moriches Bay Project, said. “It’s exciting to them that they can physically make something.”
For the past five years, the Moriches Bay Project has visited elementary and high schools, drumming up volunteers. They also take the chance to spread awareness about the ongoing struggle to clean the bay.
Getting as many student volunteers as possible who can make these cages is a crucial mission in the winter months, Laura Fabrizio, the CEO of the Moriches Bay Project, said.
“We don’t have a lot of people that can go out into the schools, so I do a lot myself,” Fabrizio said.
For many students, building the cages and hearing presentations in the classroom is just the beginning of something bigger. Many have gone on to pursue careers in environmental science because they enjoy what they learn from the Moriches Bay Project and want to help improve the local environment actively.
“We run between three and four farms every year, and each have 10 cages with 10,000 oysters,” Anthony Sferrazza, one of the younger interns working at Moriches Bay, said. Sferrazza started as a volunteer in high school before he began working full time and managing the oyster farms and cages. “One oyster alone filters about 50 gallons of water a day.”
The students that decide to volunteer become a significant asset to the farms’ operations, because they basically manage the farms themselves, Kim Tetrault, a member of the Cornell Cooperative Extension and educator, said.
“Kids have to learn how we fit on the planet from a young age,” Tetrault said. He has taught classes to both children and adults in his community about raising and monitoring shellfish.
In his opinion, children are the most important and schools that ignore marine education as part of their curriculum are missing a huge boat.
Because the Moriches Bay Project is located deep in the South Shore of Long Island, most volunteers manage the oyster farms and cages in the summer, which is why Fabrizio takes the initiative to visit local schools in the winter.
“It’s happening right in their backyard,” Amy Nelson, STEM teacher at West Hampton Bay Elementary, said.
Nelson was contacted by Fabrizio four years ago to talk to her students and the Moriches Bay Project has visited every year since.
A high school teacher from WestHampton Beach High School, Jok Kommer, has been educating students for over 20 years about marine life. Kommer invites members from the Moriches Bay Project to talk to his class during their annual winter tour.
“As extra credit for my class, I usually send one child a year to volunteer at the farms,” Kommer said. “It’s a good resume builder for them.”
Local government officials have also taken the task of partnering with the Moriches Bay Project. Dan Panico, the Councilman of Brookhaven, said he supports how the nonprofit tries to involve children from local areas.
“Moriches Bay Project not only cleans our bays but educates the next generation about the environment and the role that each one of them can play in improving water quality,” Panico said.