COPALIS BEACH — For a few, it was their first time at the beach.
About 45 fourth and fifth graders took the bus ride from McCleary School a few weeks back for an excursion on Copalis Beach with Alan Rammer, a retired Fish & Wildlife biologist, who provided a personalized tour of tide pools, telling stories of lost treasure and shipwrecks along the coast.
Dangling a crab shell by its discarded legs, Kelsey Darrett, 10, of McCleary said she’d never been to the beach in Washington state before.
“Is this dead or alive?” she mused.
“It’s just a shell,” Rammer said, later taking a crab shell and using his finger to prop up dangley eye bits from where the crab’s eyes would be. “The crab sheds everything.”
Rammer said he personally guides students of all ages from all over the state to help them understand the intricacies of the coast. A day before he visited with the McCleary students, he had a bus load of students from Auburn up and then he showed students from Hoquiam around.
“There are so many students that have never been to the ocean, even though its practically in their backyard,” Rammer said. “For the students in Hoquiam, they’re 10 minutes from the beach? And yet half of them that came out here had never been to the beach before. It’s sad. And that’s what makes these trips all the more important.”
Many of the field trips for the coast are funded by the Grays Harbor Marine Resource Committee, which was created in 2009 and is funded mainly by the state. The committee is made up of all sorts of people and interests, who depend on the beach and have a stake in its future.
Former county commissioner Al Carter helped spearhead efforts to create the local Marine Resource Committee. Today, he’s the safety and compliance manager for Ocean Gold in Westport and has actually applied for an appointment to the committee.
“It’s kind of odd because I’ve been going to the meetings recently and I must have appointed more than half of the members at this point,” Carter said.
Before the Marine Resource Committee, Carter says there really wasn’t a place where all of the different coastal interests could gather and brainstorm on planning issues involving the local coastline.
Ray Toste, a crabber from Westport and the president of Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, says that’s precisely why he wanted to get on the committee.
“We were hearing of all these national issues that were coming right down upon us and yet our voices weren’t being heard, particularly when it came to issues of energy along our coastline,” Toste said. “We have a huge fishery to protect and I have a huge responsibility to protect the 500 families that are part of this industry — therefore, we needed to put something together.”
Toste said issues like marine spatial planning and ocean acidification are not just being discussed by the Marine Resource Committee, but it’s being debated and research projects are being funded.
The committee has funded studies looking at the impact of acidity levels of shellfish at Brady’s Oysters and the nearby shellfish at Lone Tree, both located near Westport. The committee has also funded a study looking at harmful algae blooms, which have the potential to shut down shellfish industries and close beaches.
“We can’t solve global warming or ocean acidification but it all starts somewhere,” Toste said. “And it needs to start at the local level. Anytime you get some people in D.C. trying to make decisions that impact Westport it’s not going to turn out good. It never does. When it comes to any issue but mainly marine issues, the best science available always will be indigenous knowledge. It’s the local people that know what’s happening in the oceans and everywhere else. …
“We’re making a difference but we still have a ways to go,” Toste said. “The Marine Resource Committee has evolved to coastal management. We’re a small body with environmental interests, the industry and the port and the environmentalists. It’s a blend because surfers don’t know a whole lot about crabbing and I’m not going to surf, but we get together to share each other’s concerns.”
“I remember being on the governor’s ocean policy working group and there wasn’t a single fisherman there,” Carter added. “I had to hold the floor for them and that group led directly to the creation of these coastal marine resource committees.”
Carter said that groups around Puget Sound have had their act together for years, parlaying marine resource committee memberships into grant proposals and projects valued in the millions of dollars. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire launched a shellfish initiative in her last months of office and yet devoted no money to the coast — specifically because all of the federal dollars she was getting was tied directly to helping Puget Sound and nowhere else.
“We have to have more education out there on the value of our coast, both in its use as a resource and its value to the economy,” Carter said. “At least 31 percent of our economy is fishing. It’s our biggest economy we have and it’s all about clean water and how we take care of stuff and renewable fisheries. I’m really proud of the fact I got the Marine Resource Committee started and these folks did a good job of taking it on and the county has been very supportive of it.”
McCleary teacher HelenAnn Washburn says it’s really hard to explain to young kids the value of the coast.
In February, she was one of 34 teachers from around the Harbor who attended a workshop hosted by the Marine Resource Committee. Teachers who attended heard from members of the Quinault Nation, fishing industry specialists and others about what they do on the coast.
“I really think it was an invaluable exercise and it’s the first time I went, although they’ve been doing it a few years now,” Washburn said.
Teachers who went to the forum were given “mini grants” to help them pay for the transportation costs of a field trip. Washburn said they would also have been eligible to cover the costs of a substitute, too, although she didn’t need one.
“My school district doesn’t have the budget for something like this,” she said.
Before the field trip, the Marine Resource Committee sent an “ocean literacy kit” to her classroom so she could do full lesson plans and help the students understand what they were about to see and the importance of conservation. Some of that paid off because many times during the trip, students were picking up trash and finding places to stuff it.
“We should have brought trash bags,” said fifth grader Tyler Thompson.
Last year, the Marine Resource Committee spent $3,592 to send 687 students from all over the Harbor to the coast.
Simpson Elementary, for instance, sent 50 students to the tribal beach of Point Grenville at a cost of $5.75 per student.
“That’s pretty cheap, when you think about it,” said Garrett Dalan, the coordinator for the Marine Resource Committee, who works for the county. “The field trips have been a great success for several years, getting hundreds of kids out to the beach for a hands-on learning event.”
Joe Schumacker, a member of the Marine Resource Committee and a marine ecologist for the Quinault Nation, says the small grants given to teachers have become an invaluable part of the group’s outreach efforts.
“Point Grenville has been an amazing place for tidepools and to explain the importance of sea life,” Schumacker said. “We’ve always encouraged these proposals for transporting kids for the beach. Many of them, believe it or not, have grown up in the local area and never set foot out here. And it’s great to see someone like Alan Rammer interpret for them.”
Washburn, who teaches a combined fourth and fifth grade class at the McCleary School, and fellow fourth grade teacher Tom Mann teamed up to use their grants for the costs of the field trip out to Copalis Beach. The ASB of McCleary chipped in, too, and paid a stipend to Rammer for the trip.
Last year, Rammer was the National Marine Educator of the Year by the National Marine Educators Association. Rammer recently retired from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Rammer developed his interest in the ocean when he was just a boy. The “sandy beach is a whole world with something different happening every time you look at it,” he said in a profile for The Vidette last year. “My father took me to the beach from the time I took my first steps. I cannot remember back to when I was not puttering around in a tidepool or along a stream or riverbank. My room was always filled with shells and nautical stuff. It was in fourth grade that I decided I wanted to be a science teacher, preferably marine science. I consider myself very lucky in that regard, as I know many people my age, who still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.”
Rammer was job-shadowed for a year by writer Jim Lynch, who was writing his first novel, “The Highest Tide,” a few years ago. The story is about a young teenage boy who notices strange things going on in the tidal flats of the Puget Sound. A movie is being made, Rammer said, with filming expected to happen this summer.
Rammer is also a member of the Marine Resource Committee.
“I’m not so much on the planning end of things, but the outreach, the education, I strongly believe in that,” he said.
Copalis Beach is one of Rammer’s favorite places to show off because there are stories attached to the coast.
Rammer told the youth of the time of a shipwreck in the late 1800s when two sailors were rescued after a local went out in a rowboat and pulled them to safety. Others on the ship died. Rammer says the local ended up with a presidential commendation.
In the 1980s, Rammer says that he personally was leading students on a field trip at Copalis Beach when an antique silver dollar was found. Over the next few years, many more silver dollars were found. Rammer says those coins were later linked to a wreck off the coast where pay roll had been lost. A chest of gold coins was also on board the ship, but has never been recovered.
That news actually spurred some of the McCleary kids to scour the sand to try their luck at treasure hunting.
Although no gold coins were found, plenty of other kinds of debris was found, including a piece of a house that Rammer said was likely some tsunami debris that had washed ashore. Rammer showed off the piece, specifically noting that it lacked nail holes in line more with the Asian style of homes, than American ones.
Rammer also collected three razor clams and dug holes for “a little race” of clams with students clamoring to get around, shouting and urging on each clam as they shot into the sand.
After the race, many of the youth learned that these little razor clams help drive millions of dollars to the coast from tourists looking to scoop them up, who then stay in local motels and spend money in local restaurants. Clam tides are a big boost to local economies, especially during the winter months.
It was right about then that a hail storm started and students got drenched.
“Sometimes, we can teach them so much, but they’re not going to want to listen if they’re soaking wet,” Rammer said.
“In those cases, Mother Nature wins,” Washburn said. “But I still think some of it will soak in.”