Students aboard Cap’n Bert up close and personal with marine life
The day was cloudy and there was on-and-off rain as Captain Tom Puckett eased Cap’n Bert away from the pier at Dutch Harbor Boat Yard. On board, in addition to Puckett and deckhand Chris Parkins, were 11 students from Lawn Avenue School, a teacher and two scientists.
The trip was part of the Island Treasures program that allows Lawn Avenue School students to choose from a menu of 10 activities that highlight a variety of local enterprises. Other choices for the day included demonstrations on glassblowing, bee keeping and farming. This is the fourth year that the state Department of Environmental Management has sponsored the trip on the Cap’n Bert, a research vessel from the University of Rhode Island. Boze Hancock of the Nature Conservancy headed the trip.
“It’s an introduction to some of the marine science that’s going on,” Hancock said. “The trawl they are doing is the work that has been going on to provide the longest time-series data set for changes in fish communities anywhere in the world.”
Hancock said kids were learning that detecting changes through time requires the understanding of what is happening during that period. “The idea of the Island Treasures day is to introduce the kids to some of the vocational possibilities represented,” he said.
Bottom trawling is one of the most common methods used to catch fish in Rhode Island. A bottom trawl uses a funnel-shaped net that is towed behind a boat, often known as a “dragger.” There are trawlers of various sizes, ranging from small boats with 30 horsepower motors to large factory trawlers with more than 10,000 horsepower.
Following a brief lecture on boating safety, the lines were cast off and Cap’n Bert headed slowly toward Quonset Point. During the trip north, Parkins, who is a research assistant at URI’s fisheries center, used a small net to demonstrate the trawling technique that the boat would undertake. The university has been conducting research trawls twice a week for 50 years.
Suzy Ayvazian of Jamestown, a research ecologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was onboard. She said getting on the water helped the students establish a better connection with the environment and fish ecology. Returning the captured fish to the water provided a lesson in conservation.
According to Charlene Tuttle, who teaches sixth-grade science at Lawn School, the trip highlighted one of the treasures of Conanicut Island: its surrounding waters. “It helps the students to become more aware, and to see what’s going on around them.”
Before long the Cap’n Bert was off Quonset Point, in about 22 feet of water. The area is one of two spots the research vessels trawl each week. It was the second of two school trips on the bay that day, and the captain decided on a shorter trawl because the first trawl of the day had run into a large school of scup. It brought too many into the net based on the interests of fish conservation, Puckett said.
When the boat reached the right spot, Parkins deployed the net, which is held open horizontally by two doors known as otter boards. The Cap’n Bert uses a somewhat smaller net than the ones used by commercial fishing boats because researchers are generally after smaller fish.
After a 10-minute trawl, the net was pulled in to reveal its treasures. The trawl had captured scup, stripers, squid, tautog, blue crabs, sea robins and skates. The students were allowed to get up close and personal with the marine creatures before they were gently returned to their environment.
“I really like fish,” said 11-year- old Logan Godwin. “I love to explore different kinds of places. Not everyone knows how cool it is.”
According to Puckett, a lot of people don’t know that 90 percent of their seafood comes from the trawling method that was being demonstrated on the boat. Puckett, who lived in Jamestown for 30 years, was a commercial fisherman before taking the job running the research vessel. He was happy to have the students on board.
“It’s a well-behaved group,” he said. “They’re smart, interested and respectful.”
Eighth-grader Eliza Kallfelz had taken the trawling trip before and decided to come back this year. “It’s a good way to learn about the environment around the island I live on,” she said.
As the Cap’n Bert motored slowly back toward Jamestown on the calm waters of the West Passage, students were excited about their marine adventure. Just as important, educators were satisfied their message about ecology and conservation had been effectively conveyed.
“We get them thinking about different behaviors, different fish, and what the information might be used for,” Hancock said. “Getting a look at some of the fish on the bottom that they don’t normally see adds a bit of excitement. It gets middle school kids thinking more constructively.”