A brisk November wind whipped through the salt grass, but the sun was sparkling on the mud and the students were all smiling – even Phoebe Churney, who fell in the muck, the icy water finding its way into her boots and soaking through her clothes.

As Phoebe and her team finished pulling one of the soggy nets, Brunswick High School teacher Andrew McCullough announced, “So the good news is that we get to come back … and that we’re done for today.” His marine biology class was taking the nets and stakes from their experimental clam farm out of the water for the season before things started to ice up.

The 10,000 or so baby clams under the mud would stay, but the nets that had protected them this fall had to be removed. Last year’s class “planted” the clams in the mud in the spring, but this current class had been tending them all semester. They had also been checking the green crab traps and sharing this data with scientists and town managers to assess the population. Green crabs are the primary shellfish predator in the area.
In addition, they’d set out settlement boxes to see what wild seed (baby clams) might be floating around in the water. These are called “Beal” boxes, designed by Brian Beal from the Downeast Institute, a partner in the project.

“Everybody circle up,” said Andrew. “Take a look in here – there are tons of them!”

He was referring to the tiny white specks underneath the mud that had found their way into these mesh-covered boxes and had thus escaped predation by green crabs. This was a sign that wild clams were spawning in Maquoit Bay, where the experiments are located.

This project has gotten great community support. For example, a photographer and board member from the Brunswick Community Education Foundation, one of the organizations that have provided funding, was there to capture some of these muddy moments.

And, as the students were finishing up, a man came up to ask Andrew what they were up to and to suggest some creative uses for the crabs they caught in the traps. Every time I have been out with these students, people ask questions – from clammers to birders to those just enjoying the view.

Having hauled everything to shore it was time to wash up. The students headed to the tidal creek that runs across Maquoit Road to rinse the thick mud off their boots before getting back on the school bus. “This is so awesome, Mr. McCullough. Can you teach another marine biology class so I can do this again next year?” asked student Beth Labbe, as she and classmate Matt Yost splashed water up onto a very muddy Phoebe.

This soaked her even further and led to much laughter. And, it was only about 1:30 p.m., so these students had to finish up their school day smelling like intertidal ooze.

They’ll be back one more time, as soon as the tide and school schedule permit, to remove the clam pots. These are buckets set out with different experiments to look at the growth rates and predation on clams. Then, they’ll leave the clams to overwinter until spring when they will get to assess their first year of growth at the Wharton Point site.

In the meantime, they will spend the winter processing the green crabs they caught in the traps, measuring and sexing each one. They are now frozen in labeled Ziploc bags.

Brunswick’s Marine Warden, Dan Devereaux, another partner in the project, will also likely come in to talk to the class about what he’s been seeing in the town’s shellfish surveys and how the students’ work is important in helping to improve local shellfish resource. You can follow the students’ work through the winter on the project blog, www.ilovemudflats.wordpress.com.

As we looked back at the site, free of the nets and stakes that marked it since last spring, now all we saw were tracks of footprints through the mud. But, although the students’ work at the site is finished for the season, there will still be a lot going on under the mud.