By Doreen Leggett
Take a piece of paper, grab a pencil, and draw a scientist — or draw one in your mind’s eye. Is “he” holding a test tube, wearing a white coat, standing in a lab and looking like crazy-haired Doc Brown from “Back to the Future”?
That image is far too limiting and not at all what Sarah Oktay, executive director of the Center for Coastal Studies, wants people to conjure.
Oktay wanted high school students gathered at Cape Cod Community College to picture themselves. To help she showed varied images of scientists – doing oyster research on the flats, conducting aerial surveys of whales, cooperating with commercial fishermen on squid research.
As keynote speaker at WaterWORKS, a hands-on career showcase connecting high school students to Blue Economy jobs on the Cape, Oktay said scientists are increasingly important as oceans face growing problems from climate change, plastic pollution, nitrogen loading – the list goes on.
“Governments and adults are often very slow moving. It’s going to depend on all of you,” she said.
The event, conceived by Blue Economy Foundation under the umbrella of Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, celebrated its third anniversary on March 14 (after taking a two-year hiatus because of COVID) and featured a range of blue businesses, including Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Horsely Witten Group.
“While organizing WaterWORKS, so many people I spoke with did not know what it meant to be part of a Blue Economy,” said Katy Acheson, Economic Development Director at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “Even businesses who work on the water didn’t realize they were part of a bigger water-reliant economy. So even though WaterWORKS is a career exploration day designed for young people, the event was educational to the businesses presenting their work too. Everyone there witnessed the vast, eclectic economy we have around water, and I hope the students at WaterWORKS left inspired by all the fulfilling career opportunities that exist for them here on Cape Cod.”
Connor Rogan, who crews on a scallop boat and is also a commercial shellfisherman, has one of those fulfilling careers and volunteered at the Fishermen’s Alliance’s booth.
As three waves of more than 100 students each visited exhibitors, Rogan talked about his life on the water and opportunities in the commercial fisheries.
The Barnstable resident said he wished there had been a similar event to reinforce his career choice when he was in high school close to a decade ago. Instead, he made his parents happy, enrolled in college, but skipped classes.
“I paid my tuition with the money I made fishing on the Carol Marie,” Rogan said wryly.
Stephanie Sykes, who by coincidence also worked on that gillnet boat, felt the same way. She graduated from college with a marine biology degree and was introduced to fishing as an observer. Sykes fell in love with the industry and now she splits her time between fishing and advocating for the industry. She spoke about many types of fisheries, training programs, and policy, science and management. Sykes, outreach coordinator for the Fishermen’s Alliance, told students to think about what kind of lifestyle they want: Do you see yourself working nine to five in an office? Do you see yourself working on the water, harvesting wild fish for a living? Do you seek independence, entrepreneurship?
“Everyone had some connection, whether it be recreational or commercial fishing, regulations, biology, gear technology, boat building, or marine conservation,” Sykes said. “Many students shared a love of fishing recreationally, but weren’t aware of all the local opportunities to make a living fishing commercially.”
Connor Nicholson and Anna Bianco, seniors at Monomoy Regional High School, spend much of their time recreational fishing. Both have their own boats and Nicholson works for a charter business over the summer. He also got a job at Chatham Fish & Lobster and takes his work there seriously.
“I am very proud of the product I sell,” said Nicholson, who will attend Massachusetts Maritime Academy for marine engineering in the fall.
Bianco, a Grunden tote bag slung over her shoulder, is hoping to go into the Air Force. She sees how virtually everything on the Cape is connected to the water. “I think it’s 90 percent of our economy,” she said.
Andrew Popvich and Trey McPherson from Dennis Yarmouth Regional High School are direct participants in that economy as they fish commercially for bluefin tuna during the summer.
“It’s fun and honestly you can’t beat the money,” Popvich said.
They guessed, as did Eliana Costano, also of Dennis-Yarmouth, that Chatham is the top port on the Cape as far as fishing revenue, one of many important ports across the peninsula. Costano said her grandfather fishes out of different places and has taken her shellfishing. They’ll make stuffed quahogs and seafood is a comfort food of sorts.
“We lost a volleyball game and (as consolation) he came home with fresh lobsters,” Costano said.
For some students, the research component draws them in. Maggie Crofford, who attends Saint John Paul High School, is comparing growth rates and other characteristics of shellfish at two farms, one in Dennis and the other in Falmouth. She wants to go into marine science research.
Cheri Armstrong, career education and planning coordinator at Monomoy High School, said WaterWORKS is an important event for any student, regardless of whether they pursue a career in the Blue Economy.
“We live here,” Armstrong said. “It leads us to be better stewards of the future.”