Tracy Shisler is puzzled.

She leans over a hot tub-sized tank and stares down at the small fish swimming below. “Why aren’t they bigger?” she asks, glancing up at Marc Turano, aquaculture specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant. “We check the water quality and temperatures all the time. We feed them. What are we doing wrong?”

Shisler is, in fact, doing everything right.

A 30-year teaching veteran, she always looks for new ways to keep herself and her students motivated to learn. In 2006, with the help of John McCord of the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), she started an oyster hatchery program with her middle school students at Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal
Studies. For the 2007-2008 school year, Shisler and McCord enlisted Turano’s help to add black sea bass and flounder for a tag-and-release program.

“One of the important things it has done is pull the community into this project,” Shisler says of the oyster and fish hatcheries. “Everyone is excited. The kids are excited, the parents are excited and other community members are excited.”

In addition to providing sixth and seventh graders with a practical application for their math and science lessons, these aquaculture projects have engaged shy students, instilled newfound confidence in those with learning disabilities, and helped promote more parental involvement with the students’ education. Many of Shisler’s students want to grow up and become watermen, like their parents, but they know that occupation is in jeopardy.

“They want to do things that will help increase [fish and shellfish] populations to keep the sound healthier…so maybe the fisheries industry will still be there when they get old enough to participate,” Shisler says.

The program also encourages hands-on skills development that could be useful in other coastal careers, such as aquaculture or resource management, McCord says.

“It is teaching kids who are used to harvesting fish about growing them,” Turano adds. “It’s a whole different ball game.”

And the students want extra innings. This summer, McCord, Shisler and nearly a dozen students are constructing an oyster research sanctuary in the sound behind the school. They also plan to build a special tank to raise red drum in the fall.

As for how to grow the scrawny sea bass, the answer is surprisingly similar to settling the appetites of curious children: “Just keep feeding them more,” Turano says.


The development of the oyster hatchery and aquaculture program stemmed from a $10.4 million statewide investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand high school reform efforts, including the North Carolina New Schools Project. The project, which aims to create smaller high schools focused on innovative and instructional practices, has been incorporated into more than 40 schools across the state. In 2006, the Hatteras secondary school for middle and high school students was designated the Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies.

“The opening day of school was completely different than a normal opening day,” Shisler describes. “They had visitors from all different coastal agencies giving presentations and talking to the kids about careers.”

One of those presenters was McCord. He teamed up with Shisler and teacher Amber Bradshaw, and the idea for an oyster hatchery was born. McCord quickly became involved in a long-term redesign of curriculum for the school to focus on coastal and marine science. Every two weeks, he drives about an hour and a half down N.C. 12 from Manteo to teach a unit on estuarine ecology.

For McCord, it is as much about fostering a sense of responsibility for coastal resources among students as it is about education. “Most of them are already connected to the water in some way and have a jumpstart on stewardship.”

To incorporate a hands-on element to the curriculum, the teaching trio received some initial money and oyster broodstock from the North Carolina Oyster Hatchery Program (NCOHP) to begin a classroom hatchery. Committee members from the NCOHP, including McCord, helped design, construct and maintain the system.

Although the broodstock spawned, none of the larvae survived. Still, Shisler and her students refused to be discouraged. Instead, they moved their operation outside and experimented with prototypes for a floating nursery using buckets, net floats and finally pool “noodles.” They obtained more broodstock from local photographer Michael Halminksi and began raising them in the floating bags. Soon, they brought the oysters into the classroom, fed them algae and slowly raised the water temperature until it was time to spawn.

‘The students shucked oysters, took samples of the gonads to determine the sex, and put them together under a microscope,” McCord explains. And, like they might see on the Discovery Channel the kids got to see a sperm cell enter an egg cell!” Shisler remembers.

But caring for the resulting larvae has proved challenging. The longest the larvae have lived in the hatchery is five days — a far cry from the optimal age of 21 days, which is when they can be transferred to settle on old oyster shells and thrive.

“It is very common for larvae not to develop,” Turano says. Everything has to be just right – even the slightest stressors can stunt larval development. “Or sometimes, you just get a bad batch,” he adds.

Despite some early disappointments, the students remain engaged in the hatchery and the estuarine-focused curriculum.

“They know how to do everything involving the hatchery,” Shisler says, noting her students religiously monitor water quality and temperature.

“It’s amazing — they can just look at the colors [of the test kit] when they do the water quality testing and they say, ‘We need to do a water change, the ammonia level is too high.’ They don’t even have to use the color key scale anymore. It has become second nature to them.”


In 2007, Shisler and Bradshaw began the fish hatchery. They secured a Bright Ideas education grant from North Carolina’s Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives, as well as a Dominion North Carolina Power education grant and one from the Dare County Education Foundation. Meanwhile, McCord contacted Turano about lending his expertise.

“I have 12 years of experience in raising fish for public aquariums, but aquaculture is different than just keeping animals alive,” McCord says. “Marc is an invaluable resource in terms of the technical side of aquaculture.”

Turano helped the team design a research system of two 180-gallon tanks and a 50-gallon sump, or holding tank to help filter water. Turano also provides’ information about fish physiology and chemistry from a production perspective, including how the types of feed fish receive affects growth and water quality.

Turano enjoys his visits to Shisler’s classroom, and loves to see the students get excited about math and chemistry.

‘They’re seeing math and science as it applies in the real world,” he says. “And they’re learning without knowing they’re learning it.”

In November, Turano personally delivered 50 black sea bass to the school from North Carolina State University’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory. To track the growth of the fish, he suggested the students weigh the fish every month. The class first needed to take an initial weight, but the school didn’t have the proper scales. To get the total weight, the students weighed a bucket of water and then added fish. Then they took the number of fish and divided it by the total weight to get an average individual weight in grams, which soon led to conversions of ounces and pounds.

When the students learned that each fish ate approximately two to three percent of its body weight per day, this led to another math lesson. And to monitor water quality in the tanks, the students had to learn about ammonia and pH levels, concepts covered in chemistry curriculums.

“Sometimes if you tell a kid that it is time to learn math or chemistry, their eyes kind of glaze over and they stop paying attention,” Turano says. “But here they’re interested in how it works.”

The students wanted to raise flounder, so in the spring Turano provided them with several juveniles from the Lake Wheeler lab. In June, the students affixed 25 fattened sea bass with tags from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) and released them into a nearby estuary along with the flounder still too small to be tagged. The DMF will notify the school should one of the tagged fish be reported.


In addition to being featured in local and regional newspaper articles, the school’s aquaculture program has captured a wider interest. In March, Shisler’s students received visitors from the Indonesian Sea Partnership Program, similar to the National Sea Grant College Program.

“In Indonesia, most science lessons are taught out of a book,” says Sara Mirabilio, fisheries specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant who accompanied the international visitors to the school. “They wanted to learn more about classroom field trips, hands-on training and continuing education for teachers to improve workforce development in their rural communities,” Mirabilio explains. “They were amazed at how these kids had an entire aquaculture setup right therein their school.”

To keep things fresh for the students in the fall, Shisler and Bradshaw are working with Turano and McCord to design a raceway — a long, narrow tank with a constant current of flowing water — to raise red drum. Two 200-gallon tanks already have been donated, and construction help will come from high school volunteers, McCord says.

Shisler, Bradshaw, McCord and several student volunteers also are putting the finishing touches on the 30,000-square-foot oyster sanctuary behind the school. One side of the reef will contain bags of crushed oyster shell, donated by the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, and the opposite end will be composed of limestone marl, donated by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. The middle of the sanctuary will be a patchwork of oyster shell and marl arranged into a research plot.

McCord says he already knows recruitment of oyster larvae is high near the reef because he and the students have monitored the area. Using several tiles attached to a PVC pipe sunk in the water, the students document the number of juvenile oysters that settle on the tile surfaces. The tile and pipe contraption was designed by Troy Alphin of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is part of an oyster larval monitoring project in the Fishery Resource Grant (FRG) program. FRG is funded by the N.C. General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant.

“The idea is for this [sanctuary] to become a living laboratory that can continue to grow as the kids learn,” McCord says. “We want to see how this area will help stabilize the shoreline and create habitat.”

Shisler says the more her students learn about the roles oysters and fish play in local ecosystems, the more they want to continue doing their part to keep local habitats healthy.

“A lot of kids want to build oyster reefs behind their houses now,” she adds. “If people who lived on Hatteras Island started developing their own reefs, who knows how much we could at least improve some of the water quality in our own little area.”

Shisler is of the old philosophy that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. “We need to take those little baby steps to get these kids to realize that their actions make a difference,” she says.

“My whole thing is that we’re stewards of the earth — my generation didn’t do a very good job, and it is really up to the kids’ generation. I want them to learn that it is all about working together as a team.”

This article was published in the High Season 2008 issue of Coastwatch.

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