By Chris McKinnon

GLOUCESTER (CBS) – It Happens Here in Gloucester – part of Cape Ann, an urban town center surrounded by beaches, boats and beautiful marshland. One of the town’s more famous residents was Clarence Birdseye. He is the man who put frozen foods on the dinner table.

Of course, you can’t think of Gloucester without the city’s lifeblood – the fishing industry. There is even a monument built to honor the industry here.

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At Gloucester Harbor, the Massachusetts Oyster Project isn’t harvesting oysters for food. It maintains an “upweller,” housing 60,000 tiny sea creatures in an effort to educate the public about the benefits of restoring the native wild oyster population to our shores.

Sarah Valencik, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Oyster Project, talks to WBZ’s Chris McKinnon about the oyster’s role in the ecosystem. (WBZ-TV)

The tiny oysters were even tinier just 2-and-a-half months ago when they started out about the size of a grain of sand. Now, most of them are about the size of a fingernail and they will reach nearly an inch by the fall when they are sent out into the wild.

The oysters might be small right now, but they are actually doing a big job – filtering seawater pumped up from the harbor. A fully-grown oyster can filter 50 gallons every day.

“They’re taking things out that we don’t like so much, like nitrogen, phosphorus. They also take things like sediment, bacteria, even pollutants,” explained Sarah Valencik, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Oyster Project. “They like to attach to each other, and in doing so, they provide a home for many other species, as well as also protect our shoreline from any storm or wave damage.”

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The group also points out that these oysters do best in a rocky habitat, so they don’t compete with other important shellfish industries like clams, which prefer a sandy or muddy home.

These oysters used to thrive all along the Massachusetts coastline, but years of over-harvesting and water pollution decimated populations. They even lived in Boston Harbor, a spot where they could one day return, Valencik said.

Just 2½ months ago, these tiny oysters (left) were the size of a grain of sand, as these younger oysters (right) are now. (WBZ-TV)

Today, the Mass Oyster Project is focused on educating people about the benefits of restoring our native wild oysters. They are working with the state to find areas suitable for reintroduction of the species. Over the past three years, they have released more than 200,000 into designated areas in Gloucester, Marblehead and Hyannis. This year, the team with release another 200,000.

“We’ll release our oysters that we have in our upwellers into the wild. So those three-year-old ones are currently living into the wild and have been for the past two-plus years, and they’ve been doing their part – reproducing, trying to boost the natural populations,” Valencik said.

They are showing positive signs, too. The oysters released three years ago are now about three inches big.

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For more information about the Massachusetts Oyster Project or to schedule a visit, just go to the project’s website.