A new effort to engage students and families in hands-on learning about water quality in Camden Harbor has been launched by the Camden Conservation Commission, with the Camden Public Library, YMCA and local schools.

The Stewardship Education Alliance aims to encourage exploration of ways to be good stewards of the Megunticook watershed, harbor and beaches, according to CCC member Barbara Lawrence.

On June 21, visitors to Camden Harbor found a touch-tank filled with sea creatures that live in the salty water of Penobscot Bay. The touch-tank, situated next to the harbormaster's office will return to the Public Landing several times this summer as part of a pilot program to raise awareness about water quality, Lawrence said.

The touch-tank, which belongs to the Herring Gut Learning Center, allows children and adults to view and even touch crabs and lobster, clams, mussels, oysters and quahogs, kelp, seaweeds and more. On July 21, Herring Gut Executive Director Sam Belknap and summer intern Molly Spencer introduced the sea creatures, and ensured their safe handling.

A new display-board on one side of the harbormaster's office is posted with information on fun and useful activities. Built by CCC member Wayne Ruesswick of Camden Architectural Woodwork, the board encourages kids and community members to become “citizen scientists."  Photographs posted on the board show young children helping to clean up a small shore area, and the types of creatures visitors can meet aboard a Lively Lady Lobster tour. Another item on the board lets boaters know they can access a free pump-out service, offered by the town of Camden, by calling over Channel 16.

Members of the SEA program hope that the touch-tank, and other activities will help drive home the message that humans can help sea creatures survive by keeping pollutants out of the harbor. Lawrence believes that as people become interested in the world beneath the water's surface and the living creatures there, they come to understand "that this is an environment we need to care about and care for."

At the Camden Public Library, Amy Hand, youth services manager, is creating data collection kits focusing on stewardship, that will be available to check out of the library and used to explore the harbor and watershed environments. The kits contain microscopes to view phytoplankton and zooplankton in drops of water, tools to measure water salinity and transparency, and a journal for jotting down observations. The discovery kits will also be made available to the YMCA's summer camp and Yacht Club's seamanship program, and in the fall, to elementary and middle school students.

The discovery kits empower the average person to become a citizen scientist, Hand explained. The journal contained within the kit also create a record of what people are finding as they explore the shoreline and beach.

As a CCC volunteer, Lawrence reached out to a group of people who are involved in educating young people in the community, including Hand, Elphie Owen, CRMS teacher, Sue Conover, CRES teacher and director of the Camden Area Youth Seamanship Program, Esperanza Stancioff, an educator with the University of Maine Sea Grant program and Healthy Beaches, as well as Belknap.

Her goal was to support and publicize youth programs and education already underway. As a former teacher, professor, and community worker, she wanted to do this without adding to the workload of the individual educators.

Through her outreach, Lawrence found “there is a lot of enthusiasm and understanding that we need people who live in Camden to take care of our watershed, our harbor and beach. While pollution is prevalent, there are things we can do,” she said.

The group identified various approaches, including using existing programs in the schools, introducing stewardship opportunities to teachers, and sharing resources.  Ongoing programs at CRMS include student field trips to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute laboratory and study of the Megunticook River, which flows past the school, in seventh grade science. To add to existing programs, Owen will work on helping teachers introduce stewardship activities, including clean-up days, and data collection projects, Lawrence said.

She is also concerned about keeping cigarette butts and plastic bags out of the harbor, where they can be eaten by fish and turtles. Lawrence has purchased and presented to the town a Sidewalk Buttler, an easy-to-use receptacle made in Portland that keeps butts off the streets. Ongoing discussion about reducing the use of grocery-size plastic bags continues this week at a Select Board workshop on July 24.

Part of SEA's goal is that "kids, parents and grandparents will learn about the waters surrounding the town of Camden, and how to take better care of them, and if new town ordinances are needed, people will understand why they are needed and be supportive, Lawrence said.

The CCC is involved with multiple efforts to improve water quality in Camden Harbor.

The CCC's early effort to eliminate feeding of water fowl around Camden Harbor quickly gained the cooperation of local businesses that had previously sold feed for the ducks in the harbor. An education campaign communicated by signs posted around the harbor, advises that feeding is not good for the ducks or the harbor.

This summer may see the completion of property inspections to ferret out erroneous connections between stormwater and sewer connections, that can result in overflow of the sewer system into the harbor and other natural bodies of water. The inspections began last year, in cooperation with Camden's Wastewater Department. They are conducted by town personnel, augmented by a team of two interns paid for jointly through grants obtained by the CCC and public funds. If erroneous connections between stormwater and sewer systems are discovered, property owners are notified and given a time-frame for making required repairs.

Another CCC effort in its second year, is the marking of storm drains to advise residents and visitors not to dump anything into them The education effort targets keeping pet waste, cigarette butts and refuse including plastic bags off the streets, so that rain cannot wash the debris into the drains, which then flow into the harbor.