CRISFIELD — Six cages full of baby oysters tethered to a dock at Janes Island State Park were pulled to the surface and then inspected by a group of fifth-graders who have been tending to them for the past two months.
Living among the shells and oyster spat were grass shrimp, mud crabs, tiny fish and other organisms common in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries — especially among oyster reefs.
“Does anybody have a shrimp?” asked Kolby Noble, their math and science teacher at Princess Anne Elementary.
“I do, I do!” one boy shouted. “I have two of them.”
The shrimp and other wiggly creatures were counted, then placed in small containers of water before they were returned to Daugherty Creek.
“They’ve had a lot of fun, especially finding all the fish and shrimp,” Noble said.
While students have learned a lot about the assorted critters found in the cages, their concentration has been on the oysters, which is the focus of their project for this year’s Disney Planet Challenge.
As part of the challenge — offered nationwide to Grades 3-8 — students must identify a local environmental problem, then plan and implement a solution.
After learning about the Disney program, Noble said she and her group of nine students in an enrichment group began looking for a project. A friend at the Department of Natural Resources suggested oysters, which are seen as a key component to improving the bay’s health.
“They researched it and decided to do oyster gardening,” she said.
The students gave a presentation to the rangers at Janes Island, who, in turn, allowed them to house the project there.
The cages and oyster spat were provided by DNR, which sponsors an oyster gardening program in which waterfront property owners grow oysters in cages suspended from private piers.
“The kids presented their case for the benefits of growing oysters here at the park,” said Ranger Christine Jirikowic. “We just provided a good public place for them to have their cages.”
The students started three new cages and also took over the care of three older ones in the park.
They will return to check on them again in the spring, Noble said.
The mature oysters will eventually be relocated to an oyster reef.
As part of the project, students also recently raised money at a bake sale and combined it with other donations to make a $200-plus gift to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Noble said.
They also are working to collect oyster shells from restaurants and watermen that will be donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for their efforts to build new oyster reefs. So far, they have one bushel.
Entries in the Disney Planet Challenge are due Feb. 15, with the winners announced in March.
The grand-prize winners will receive $10,000 for their school and a three-day trip to Disney World, Noble said.
Last year’s winning elementary school was in Louisiana where students raised and planted grass to prevent erosion, created and sold books on wetlands and raised money for wetlands preservation as well as more than $1,000 to buy soap to clean up animals after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Disney website.