image of barnstable county courthouse

My Accidental Passion for Oysters

By Sarah Paulson | Year 21 ACC Pocasset Member

Ever since I was a little kid I can remember being fascinated by coral reefs. So many different organisms coexisting in a beautiful, colorful habitat that looked nothing like the nature in my backyard. So naturally when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in marine conservation I looked to coral reefs. Along the way, I applied to some oceanography internships and conservation opportunities closer to home, and ended up with oysters. When I first got the news that my summer oceanography research internship would be focused on the oyster microbiome I was disappointed. Not only was I studying oysters instead of colorful coral, but I was studying the bacteria inside oysters through data analysis. This study was less glamorous than what I had imagined, but I was excited to learn more about marine science and decided to keep an open mind about oysters. 

During the first weeks of my internship, I was asked to put together a presentation about my project and what I was studying. When I went to introduce the topic I realized I knew very little about oysters and their role in local ecosystems, and the more I learned, the more I was amazed. Did you know that one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day? Or that oysters form oyster reefs which protect coastlines from storms and act as habitat for many other marine organisms? The more I learned, the more excited I was, but I finished my internship and figured that was it for me and oysters. Then this year I joined AmeriCorps Cape Cod. 

ACC members, Sarah, Chansea, and Kelsey getting ready to broadcast oysters at a group service project with Falmouth MES.

As a new ACC member I knew I wanted to serve at an organization that worked in marine conservation for my independent placement (IP). What I didn’t know was that on Cape Cod, marine conservation often means shellfish in one way or another. And so a few weeks in I found out that I was going to be serving with Falmouth Marine and Environmental Services on their shellfish propagation projects. Just like that, oysters found me again. This time they were joined by quahogs and scallops too! I figured this IP would be a good opportunity to use my oyster knowledge from my previous internship, but that I would never really be interested in shellfish. 

Sarah taught her housemates how to build oyster bags which will be used for future oyster propagation by Falmouth MES.

I started off the year by designing lesson plans to teach Falmouth 3rd graders about shellfish and their role in local ecosystems. Along the way I learned even more about shellfish, how they improve water quality, provide a local food source, and stimulate the local economy. Then while I worked with the Falmouth teachers and administrators to plan a time to start teaching these lessons, I was out in the field maintaining oyster farms, overwintering some oysters and quahogs, and seeding others. In March I finally went to my first classroom with a box of oysters and started teaching about these crazy little organisms. Explaining to the kids how oysters live and the services they provide us, I felt so much pride. Both in the program that I had helped create, and in the oysters themselves. Much to my surprise, I had come to love oysters. 

Sarah provided environmental education and community outreach on behalf of her Individual  Placement with Falmouth MES.

As I have started to look for jobs for next year, my AmeriCorps Cape Cod experience has certainly changed my outlook on my future career. I am still interested in colorful, tropical coral reefs, but now I am also genuinely excited about shellfish and their potential as an alternative solution for nitrogen remediation. The opportunities that I have had to experience a wide range of natural resource management and environmental education projects have helped me see what kinds of positions are out there, and think about what might be a good fit for me going forward. It is especially exciting to know that you do not have to move to the tropics to be able to find opportunities for marine conservation. So thank you to oysters for following me until I loved you, and thank you to ACC for helping me get there.