PORT RICHEY — Nine-year-old Amanda Velcov could hardly believe her eyes.
"Wow, they caught a fortune!" she said as her classmates waded out of the brackish water and dropped their well-worn seining net on the shore at the Energy and Marine Center.
It was, no doubt, quite a good catch for the fourth-grade students at Deer Park Elementary School. All told, there were about two dozen silver side minnows, a baby crab, a gooey cone jelly and a mangrove seed pod.
Under the watchful eye of the center's environmental education instructor, Donna Koljeski, the tiny creatures would be gently scooped up and dropped in a bucket to be studied. Later, after the students had boarded the bus back to school, the critters would be returned to their home to take refuge in the mangroves and marsh grasses of the Salt Springs Run Estuary.
With the giant oil slick drifting east toward the Florida coastline, there is growing concern about the devastating impact it could have on this fragile estuary and the wildlife it nurtures. This is the home, and sometimes visiting spot, for baby grouper, shrimp, mollusks and puffer fish; marsh periwinkles, egrets, herons, stingrays, fiddler crabs dolphins and, on occasion, manatees.
"It's very scary," a somber Koljeski said. "I'm hoping that the current will take it away from us. But it looks like it's going to impact us all."
What would that mean for future student field trips?
"We haven't talked about that yet," she said.
The annual field trip to the EMC is a rite of passage for Pasco County elementary students. Since 1975, the school district has bussed thousands of students from schools throughout Pasco County to get a first-hand look at the coastal treasure trove.
The Pasco shoreline may be lacking in the soft, white sand of the Pinellas County beaches that attract northern tourists. But this is where ocean life begins.
"This is the nursery of the sea," Koljeski tells her charges. "Nine percent of all the seafood we eat — oysters, shrimp, clams, muscles, fish — start out right here."
This is a working field trip where students have a chance to partake in a variety of hands-on activities. They shuffle their way into the water to try their hand at seining as egrets wade nearby. They don bulky gloves to pry apart a bin filled with jagged oyster clusters that serve as filter for the brackish water and discover the tiny crabs, shrimps and mollusks that find shelter there. There's a short jaunt out to the wooden boardwalk that borders the mangroves where plankton, which serves as nourishment for much of the food chain, is collected to be examined under microscopes. Students also learn the difference between a vertebrate and invertebrate, how the tides affect the inlet and how stormwater runoff threatens the estuarial environment because it contains harmful fertilizers and pesticides.
Right now, the students are more knowledgeable about the dangers of stormwater runoff than the drifting oil slick.
"They haven't really been talking about it," said Deer Park Elementary teacher Cheryl Gendebien, who was overseeing the oyster-cluster activity. "We've read a little about it in Scholastic News, but because it's not close to home for them it hasn't made a big impact."
Even so, there are some who share the adults' concern.
"I think it's just bad," said Victoria Pawelska, 10. "People should stop drilling by the shore."
"It's going to kill a lot of fish," said her classmate, Wyatt Kurzals, 10. "They should be protected."
"I haven't seen it, but my mom's been watching it on TV so I know it's bad," said Chris Haranziam, 9. "I think they should stop it.
Day by day, that is the wishful thinking for some keeping watch over the rising tide.
"I just can't imagine the impact it might have," Koljeski said as she took in her surroundings. "I can't imagine not being able to go into the water. I just can't imagine it not looking like this."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 372-9794.