When Maaike Tiersma ‘17 and Ellyn Vitek ‘17 signed up for an internship with the Nature Conservancy, they knew next to nothing about sustainable aquaculture. But now all of that has changed, thanks to one summer spent exploring the effects of newly-built oyster reefs on the health of local waterways.
“There’s an overall trend moving toward reestablishing Rhode Island as an oyster economy,” says Tiersma. “It was a really, really big industry in the early 1900s that was wiped out because of [human action], but now we're trying to get it back.”
In order to accomplish this goal, conservation workers have taken to local ponds and waterways, where they stack oyster shells on top of one another to form reefs. Lab-grown oyster larvae then bind to the shells, mature, and recruit other oysters to join the growing reef. This process is designed to enlarge the local population of oysters, whose filter-feeding behavior will ultimately improve the health of other marine organisms that call the waterway home.
Tiersma and Vitek spent months assessing the effect the reefs had on local ponds. And after spending long days on the water capturing, categorizing, and counting the resident fish and crustacean species, both students came away from the experience with a renewed respect for and interest in fieldwork.
“People can make all the predictions and estimates of what's going to happen to an environment that they want, but you don't actually know what's happening until you actually get out there and you test species and water samples and soil and actually see the environment and compare it to past studies,” says Vitek. “You can look on a computer and say, ‘this is probably going to happen’, but you don't actually know that for sure until you get out there. That's the whole point of fieldwork, is that you see for yourself.”