Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Peekskill Middle School Environmental Club Makes the Hudson River their Oyster for Annual Symposium

The Hudson River for most people usually comes to mind as an after-thought of the bridge we navigate between New York and New Jersey. In centuries past, though, the Hudson was known the world over for a staple that is as far from us as the suspension bridge was to the early 19th century. "The Hudson was the oyster capital of the world," according to the mock presentation made by the students of the Peekskill Middle School Environment Club in preparation for the 20th annual Wheellabrator Symposium for environmental stewardship and education. But the oyster’s disappearance amounts to more than a historical footnote for the students doing their part to restore the river to its past natural glory.

Embarking last week on Florida for the symposium, which centered on the theme of “Connecting to the Oceans,” the crustacean’s absence serves as a fitting emblem to the club’s investigation into the affect that growing urbanization, industrialization and development has had on the Hudson River Estuary Watershed. “Oysters are a keystone species because they filter waste from the water and provide habitat for many species through their reefs, said 7th grader Emily Lyles.

In turn, the effects play out across the rest of the ecosystem.  As such, the research of the 25 member club uncovered an obvious history of over fishing but also an almost complete indifference to sewage and factory dumping, and the most damaging, PCB release. “The Clean Water Act of 1972 began to reverse all that,” said 7th grader Akua Yeboah.

Even so, the group has found that fish are still not edible 40 years later, but any study worthwhile must involve getting its hands dirty, and in this case, wet. The club “Slooped” down to the river, a la Henry Hudson and Pete Seeger, and went in search of little creatures to make inferences as to the general health of the food webs. “We didn't catch as much as we were hoping, however we did have one eel, several small larvae of bugs, and a few leeches, said the club’s teacher Scott Tabone.

It also was a little too cold to draw any definitive conclusions so the club worked with Hudson River Sloop Clearwater member Eli Schloss to verify what they found online.  Unfortunately, what wasn’t in short supply was refuge left behind by their fellow humans – thereby providing clear proof that indifference isn’t only an inhabitant of the distant past.

To that, Mya Guardino deferred her cold feet at the river to this daunting and disturbing reality. “Whenever you picked up one piece of garbage, there was always another that followed, said the 7th grader. 

Still, Mya did not ebb from this unkempt, unnatural tide and neither did her namesake Mya Turner. “Seeing all the trash and picking up each piece made you want to do more and more,” she lamented.

Thus lightening the load, 8th grader Gordon Evans extended his vision into the future. “If we do our part now, people that come after us won’t have as much to do,” he said.

At the same time, the kids quickly realized that they could make an even bigger difference by bringing the river back with them to the familiar confines of social media. “We got a lot of retweets from environmental groups, and a lot of people who became aware of us through social media, want to join next year,” said 7th grader Giavonna Tiscone.

Returning the follows as their generation well know they should, a far more important reciprocation will take place in June. Students will follow Fabien Cousteau and his team during Mission 31, a month-long research mission in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary aboard Aquarius. The only underwater marine habitat and lab in the world, the group will participate in online science sessions with a multitude of renowned scientists.
But sometimes testing the waters of a new project takes even more before it takes hold. “I joined last year, and at first I was a little bored, but when I realized we made an impact, it became fun,” said Dominique Schweizer.

An evolution any educator would sign up for, and the same goes for the progress Tabone has seen his students make as presenters. “They all have a lot more confidence,” Tabone said. 

A boast that amounts to a blossoming for Dominique. “It’s opened me up,” she asserted her new found voice.

Nonetheless, the presentation will open with Mya Turner, who feels privileged to set the tone and showcase Peekskill in a “good way.” And after they’ve earned a grownup stay at the Holiday Inn, the young environmentalists intend to leave the way they came. “We’re going to clean our rooms just like we cleaned the river,” concluded Dominique.

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