From Digging Up to Digging Down on Clams: Clam Camp at Sitka High School

This post was originally published on SEATOR social media on March 26, 2019

Last week, SEATOR led a week of Clam Camp with Sitka High School’s Field Science students. The goal of these lessons was to give the students a chance to participate in the whole process of SEATOR’s shellfish biotoxin program by practicing phytoplankton monitoring, collecting shellfish from the field to test in our lab, and then interpreting the results and opening up the clams, both to dissect for an appreciation of their anatomy and a celebratory feast to appreciate their taste.

On Day 1, students were introduced to the scientific background concepts including the role of phytoplankton in the marine food web, what harmful algal blooms (HABs) are and how they occur, and the importance of shellfish species in providing ecosystem services, including as an important traditional food resource. Students practiced their microscopy skills, analyzing a water sample from Sitka’s waters and identifying the phytoplankton they saw.

For the next session of Clam Camp, the students were able to go into the field and get their hands and boots dirty. We took a boat trip to Leesoffskaia Bay, when the low tide exposed a large area perfect for clam digging. In groups, the students moved up and down the shoreline finding a bounty of clams, and some other surprising organisms as well, like the Alaskan Spoonworm.

We discussed how this is an example of scientific data having a tangible impact on everyday people’s lives by empowering those living in Southeast Alaska to be aware of the public health risk of PSP and make more informed decisions about recreationally harvesting shellfish.

After the Field Science teams collected these shellfish, they were taken back to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab (STAERL) where they were tested for the toxins responsible for causing Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, or PSP. We tested two species, butter clams and littleneck clams, and the results came back with the butter clams being ‘hot,’ or above the federal regulatory limit, and the littleneck clams well below that limit. This data was relayed to the Field Science students during their final session of Clam Camp, as a real example of the process SEATOR goes through to test samples sent to us from our partner communities and then make that information available to the public on our website. We discussed how this is an example of scientific data having a tangible impact on everyday people’s lives by empowering those living in Southeast Alaska to be aware of the public health risk of PSP and make more informed decisions about recreationally harvesting shellfish. We also made use of the shellfish we collected in the field by performing dissections, opening those clams to identify the organs inside their shells. Meanwhile, the littleneck clams were steamed up so that the students could have a chance to taste their tested shellfish and appreciate the clams’ importance as a culturally traditional (and delicious) food resource of Southeast Alaska’s coastal ecosystem.

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