Did you know that the St. Petersburg marine science research community is the largest in the Southeast? Research being done here is improving our understanding of many of the largest local and international environmental issues, including the effects of oil and sewage spills, sea level rise and ocean acidification. The center of this oceanographic research activity is the USF College of Marine Science (CMS) at the C.W. Bill Young Marine Science Complex located on Bayboro Harbor, just south of downtown. Several prominent oceanographic institutions are clustered nearby. They all make up the St. Petersburg Ocean Team (SPOT), an informal consortium consisting of over 800 professionals involved in a mind-boggling variety of oceanographic activities, and representing a huge economic driver in the region.
CMS, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in April, is a graduate school with approximately 100 students—two-thirds in Ph.D. programs—and 27 faculty members. It offers interdisciplinary programs with five areas of concentration: Marine Resource Assessment and Biological, Chemical, Geological and Physical Oceanography.
Dean Jacqueline Dixon’s message to prospective students sums up the school’s appeal: “CMS scientists work in every ocean on issues…including sustainable fisheries, red tides, coral reef health, sea level rise, floods, ocean acidification, paleoclimate and sensor development.” CMS Development Director Howard Rutherford fondly recalls research voyages as a graduate student in the Arabian Sea, Arctic and South Pacific Oceans, as well as the Caribbean Sea. The laboratory and oceanic modeling activity at CMS’ 53,000-square-foot research and technology center goes hand-in-hand with the high seas expeditions.
In the last year, CMS’ faculty and researchers published nearly 100 scientific articles and brought in more than $15 million in research funding. A few examples show how the research is globally significant, regionally relevant and locally applied.
Sediment and fish from various Gulf of Mexico locations are analyzed to monitor any ongoing impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Tilefish are particularly revealing because they burrow into the sea bottom. Researchers analyze tilefish for both the level of oil residue and its impact on the fish’s health.
Video equipment has been developed that, when trolled behind research vessels, will identify, count and measure fish in real time to monitor populations and migrations. Previously this research needed to be done by netting the fish. Underwater gliders are also used for similar research.
The ocean modeling and prediction team places data gathering sensors in far-flung waters, and develops mathematical models to analyze problems ranging from local water quality to sea level rise and other impacts of climate change.
The microbiology lab offers a ”grouper check” service identifying the type of fish by testing fillets. This allows restaurants to ensure that imported fish are what they are represented to be. The lab also conducts testing of water quality for viruses, a process used after the recent partially treated sewage spills in local waters.
CMS is also focused on educational outreach to the community. It offers an Oceanography Camp for Girls each June to inspire and motivate girls entering high school to consider career opportunities in the sciences. It also is a major sponsor of Teen Science Café informational meetings and, each October, the two-day St. Petersburg Science Festival, which attracted 25,000 attendees last year.
FIO is chartered by the Florida university system to facilitate collaborative research and education. It is headquartered at CMS with its research vessel R/V Weatherbird II, which played a key role in the Deepwater Horizon investigation. The newly christened, state-of-the-art R/V W.T. Hogarth will arrive soon. These vessels are floating classrooms used for research by students and scientists from CMS and the 29 other scientific and educational institutions that make up FIO’s research consortium. Eckerd College and St. Petersburg College are also members.
FWRI monitors and provides technical support for marine resources, wildlife and habitats, and shares the research center with CMS. It is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. More than half of FWRI’s 600 staff members work at Bayboro Harbor.
USGS came to St. Petersburg in 1989 and has expanded to three buildings in the area. It investigates processes related to coastal and marine environments and their societal implications related to natural hazards, resource sustainability and environmental change.
NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office is located a few blocks south. It is responsible for the management, conservation and protection of living marine resources in waters from three to 200 miles offshore. For example, this regional office ensures compliance with fisheries regulations and issues alerts to protect endangered species. NOAA may expand in the area. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to develop a plan to bring another NOAA facility and a research vessel to Bayboro Harbor. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is located in the same building as NOAA.
SRI, an independent non-profit research and development firm headquartered in Menlo Park California, with a branch in St. Petersburg, launched a marine science research facility at a nearby 38,000-square-foot, city- owned building in 2009.
The City of St. Petersburg aims to attract more oceanic research firms to the “Innovation District”, the walkable area just south of downtown, which includes USFSP, Poynter Institute, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Bayfront Health.
The St. Petersburg Ocean Team estimates that marine science institutions generate $251 million in local economic activity annually. SPOT members are planning to open a Marine Exploration Center to educate and increase awareness of this impact. A successor to the former Pier Aquarium, the Center will be housed in a renovated 8,000-square-foot former visitors’ terminal at Port St. Pete. It will include digital learning displays and a theatre showing short films, such as those from the environmentally themed Blue Ocean Film Festival, which is held in St. Petersburg biannually.
Stay tuned; the marine science story continues to grow in St. Petersburg!