A Deeper Understanding
A beautiful place for science: Nestled on a quiet spot on the Gulf, scientists at the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab endeavor to expand our understanding of critical marine habitats. Photo by Scott Holstein
A Deeper Understanding
Scientists delve into the mysteries of the Gulf’s ecosystem at Florida State University’s Coastal & Marine Laboratory
By Bruce Ritchie
It’s low tide near the Florida State University Coastal & Marine Laboratory, and shorebirds carefully pick for food along the exposed oyster reefs. Skates and stingrays glide gently over the seagrass, while sand dollars and sea worms — which quickly withdraw their featherlike feeding tentacles to hide their presence — are also to be found.
Life goes on under the sometimes-placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico along U.S. Highway 98 in eastern Franklin County. And inside the FSU Marine Lab, there are changes afloat that scientists hope will deepen their understanding of the area’s sea life as it faces a future of climate change and increased development.
(from top down)
The FSU marine lab studies how oysters are impacted by reduced freshwater; experiments on cord grass are carried out in the lab’s greenhouse; and an experimental re-circulating aquarium system is used to feed and grow juvenile fish. Photos by Scott Holstein
Perched just a couple of feet above foamy Gulf waters on a narrow strip of beach, the lab used to serve as a boat launch and service facility for a few professors from the Tallahassee campus, as well as their graduate students. That role changed when veteran FSU researcher Felicia Coleman took over as director in January 2006. She established the lab as a research institution in its own right.
“We have practicing scientists who are here all the time … This is a focal area for their research,” she says.
The lab now has nine Ph.D. scientists. It may be too soon to measure the new institution’s overall impact on science, Coleman says, but some important research is under way.
The lab, surrounded by tall pines along a stretch of beach where groundwater flows in rivulets from the sand, is still officially known as Edward Ball Marine Laboratory, named for the late president of the
St. Joe Company.
The company in 1998 stopped producing paper and began developing some of its more than one million acres of land.
St. Joe developments include SummerCamp on more than 700 acres surrounding the lab, although construction has slowed amid the recent real estate and economic downturn.
Sandra Vargo, assistant director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, says she expects FSU’s faculty to make important scientific advancements. The institute is a statewide consortium that includes FSU and other universities and research laboratories.
“(FSU officials) have made a dramatic investment in the facility in having researchers and faculty there all the time,” says Vargo, who runs the Keys Marine Laboratory on Long Key.
For now, the FSU lab’s reputation rests largely on the research of Coleman and her husband, Christopher Koenig, another new lab faculty member. Together they have more than three decades of extensive research into grouper and other reef fish that has led to increased regulation of important commercial fisheries.
To make the research connection between marine life and human activities on land, Coleman inserted “coastal” into the marine lab’s name. And she hired Todd Engstrom, an ornithologist and fire ecologist, to lead outreach and education as assistant director.
Scientists already know that seagrass plays a crucial role in the growth of grouper, sea trout and other important commercial species, not to mention recreational scalloping. Coleman hired faculty member Randall Hughes to focus on the role of seagrass as a “foundation” species in the region’s ecosystem.
Another faculty member, Kevin Craig, studies how shrimp, sea turtles and other sea creatures are affected by nutrient pollution and the Gulf’s “dead zone” near the Mississippi River. Perry native Dean Grubbs studies the role that sharks and other marine predators play in the Big Bend ecosystem.
The Apalachicola River, whose flow is threatened by Atlanta’s water use, plays a huge role in the Gulf’s ecological productivity, Coleman says. Post-doctoral research associate Laura Petes studies Apalachicola Bay’s oysters and how climate change could affect the region’s coastline.
Collectively, the scientists at the marine lab and those at FSU’s Tallahassee campus focus their research on the Apalachicola River watershed. Coleman says the FSU Coastal & Marine Laboratory will deliver science that helps the public and policymakers in the future protect the Big Bend and Forgotten Coast region.
“This is the biggest expanse of seagrass in the United States,” Coleman says. “We’d like to keep it that way.”
If You Go
The Coastal & Marine Laboratory hosts a Conservation Lecture Series, which is open to the public, on the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in the lab’s auditorium. The lab hosts an annual Open House as well as “Saturday-at-the-Sea,” an outreach program for Florida primary school students and their teachers to learn more about the Gulf’s marine environment.
For more information, call the lab at (850) 697-4120, Monday through Friday, or visit marinelab.fsu.edu. The lab is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.