Reece Whatmore may only be a sophomore at The Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch, but she’s trying to have an impact when it comes to the effects of pollution in the gulf.
She and classmates Cayla Dammann, Lilli Carlton, Max Hajduk and Clayton Watson, all seniors, are a part of the school’s extracurricular aquaculture program focused this school year on increasing the oyster population in the Gulf of Mexico.
Marine biologists say oysters can help clean up the effects of red tide through their normal eating habits. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day by eating red tide cells.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma destroyed reefs that are important to the oyster population.
The ODA students are building large tanks inside the school’s STEM lab as part of their research. Oysters need to graft onto a reef in order to grow and reproduce, and the students are looking to see if man-made products can be introduced to replicate those reefs. The students are researching what would be the most biodegradable and long-lasting materials that could be used to build a reef.
“We want to make sure that whatever material we use, it won’t cause more pollution,” said Hadjuk.
Toshiba American Foundation funds projects designed by individual classroom teachers for hands-on projects, and it provided the ODA students with a $7,287 grant to buy the tanks, materials and oysters needed for the research program.
Dammann said if the students can find solutions on a small scale, perhaps they can be transferred to a bigger project.
“There will be a control tank that we’ll use to compare to the other tanks to determine what works and what doesn’t,” Dammann said.
Eventually, the oysters they are using in ODA’s lab will be returned to the gulf.
If anyone doubts the students can make a difference, Watson has a message.
“Just watch us do it,” he said.
The students hope the research project continues after they graduate. In the long run, they hope their project leads to a student-run research facility on campus just for aquaculture projects. They even made mock-ups of a possible research facility.
“Just because we’re focusing on rebuilding an oyster population and reducing red tide doesn’t mean the next group of students have to do the same,” Carlton said. “They can focus on some other marine life research. It’s all about building a legacy. We could learn something new every year. This is a continuous thing.”