Teen environmentalist Ellie Sawyer is doing her part to restore New Jersey's Barnegat Bay.
In 2015, this Weehawken resident got involved with Reclam the Bay at the suggestion of her aunt and a family friend. Sawyer's continuing involvement is a positive indicator of a perfect fit.
"We are working to repopulate shellfish in Barnegat Bay," said Sawyer, a member of the Academy of the Holy Angels Class of 2024.
"In recent years, the population has significantly declined. We raise oysters, clams, and scallops. They are filter feeders and help clean the water coming in and out of the bay."
Sawyer explained that oyster reefs are essential to the bay's ecosystem. Reefs offer shelter to several types of animals, protect the shorelines, and provide water filtration.
Each summer, Sawyer spends much of her time placing shells in bags to create oyster reefs and keeping the organization's tanks clean. Once a week, she appears at The Maritime Museum, where she discusses Reclam the Bay's goals.
"I also teach about the animals we raise as well as other local wildlife and what is threatening them. Some of the threats are large storms, boat wake, excess fertilizer and other chemicals from storm drains, and much more," Sawyer said.
"The presentation shifts with our audience; for example, if there are mostly children, it might be more fast-paced and a little less technical. In the end, we play a game where people draw a numbered shell and see their fate as a clam, scallop, or oyster. "
This game highlights the role clams, oysters, and scallops play as food for other animals.
When she is working outdoors, Sawyer sees many shorebirds, another important part of the ecosystem. Her sightings include ospreys, double-crested cormorants, various tern species, and many different gulls and sandpipers.
Sawyer also spotted seven little blue herons while helping with a recent cleanup of Mordecai Island, a marshy island within Barnegat Bay.
"I didn't spend too much time on the bay until recent years when I got a kayak, but I still see our impact without having a 'before' to compare it to," she said.
"I see the oyster reefs we built surrounding the shorelines of marsh islands in the bay. I have spoken to many people during my time with Reclam, and people who have spent a lot of time by the water have noticed differences.
Because they are filter feeders, clams, scallops, and oysters have made the bay more clear. Every year, we put hundreds of thousands of creatures into the bay, and they are helping it heal.
Fifty or sixty years ago, the shellfish populating Barnegat Bay could filter all the water coming in and out in a day or two, but now it takes three months to do the same thing. We are hoping that one day it can return to how it used to be."