Guardians of the Sea

FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce is protecting our coastal ecosystems and marine life, ensuring food security, and so much more

The 144-acre campus of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce

From the air, the aquaculture park at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
emerges as an unassuming group of eight white low-rise buildings squatting in rows alongside the Fort Pierce Indian River Lagoon. Inside these modified greenhouses with metal roofs, engineers and researchers are creating and studying the ideal conditions to sustainably and responsibly increase the world’s supply of high-quality seafood. Banks of fish tanks, ranging from 30 gallons to 20,000 gallons, contain a variety of warm-water marine life such as fish, clams, shrimp, and various algae, including seaweed.

Elsewhere on the 144-acre campus of Harbor Branch, Annie Page-Karjian, assistant research professor and clinical veterinarian, is at work on her specialty: aquatic animal health. At any given time, Page-Karjian might have 20 separate studies underway, but the highest-profile work is being conducted with so-called “sentinel” species. Such animals respond to similar environmental threats as humans, giving us a good indication of the health of Florida’s coastal ecosystem.

Sea turtles, for example, migrate miles between foraging and nesting grounds, eat near the top of the food web, breathe air, and generally live a long time, according to Page-Karjian. “They are vulnerable to a lot of the same environmental factors as humans, so when we see a healthy sea turtle, it tells us a lot of things are going right in our environment,” she says.

According to Executive Director James Sullivan, the major research focus areas at Harbor Branch are: aquaculture innovation and food security,marine ecosystem conservation (which includes mammal research), ocean and human health, and technical innovation and national defense. Founded in 1971 by J. Seward Johnson Sr., son of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson, the institute became part of Florida Atlantic University in 2007. Its mission, “ocean science for a better world,” is more important now than ever, says Sullivan, because the marine ecosystem is in peril. As any beach-goer can attest, the state’s annual harmful algal blooms, including red tide, have wreaked economic and environmental havoc. Underwater, things are also dire. “In Florida, we have a horrendous situation with coral reef disease, which is killing hard coral reefs all along the coast,” says Sullivan. “We’re studying the cause of this unknown disease and researching a cure to eventually restore it.”

Photo by Matan Yuval

More than 200 scientists, engineers, and students work on campus. And while the diversity of the research is astounding, all are interconnected and share the common goal of improving and maintaining the health of the marine environment, which impacts human health on land as well. Explains Sullivan: “Marine mammals live and play in the same water we do, and they eat the same species of fish we do. So if we start to see disease and toxins in them, it’s a problem for us too.”

Research teams study our waters to try and figure out things like what is causing disease in our coral reefs.
Photo by Alex Dolce

Conservation efforts enacted 30 years ago are partly responsible for the fact that sea turtles—especially green sea turtles—are generally doing well in Florida today, says Page-Karjian. But climate change may be working against them, affecting their food supply and population sex ratios. Page-Karjian and her team are in the process of a green turtle health assessment that spans several ecologically diverse sites across the state. South Florida beaches produce almost exclusively females, she explains, while cooler, northern beaches produce more males. “We like to say ‘hot chicks’ and ‘cool dudes,’” she jokes. On a serious note, though, she adds that this imbalance could eventually lead to decreased reproduction. Additionally, their food supply— green turtles love seagrass—is affected by harmful algal blooms and toxicants such as chemicals that leach out of plastics.

Algae in Lake Okeechobee

Harmful blue-green, red, and countless other algae are increasingly plaguing the state, Sullivan says, and the culprits are the warmer waters from climate change and waste runoff from farm fertilizer combined with leaky infrastructure that results in sewage overflow. All of this, he says, combines to “give [the algae] a nice warm environment and all the nutrients to grow.” The good news, he adds, is that the public, as well as the state government, is responding. “When the public gets fearful of going in the water and we feel the economic impact, people pay attention,” he says. “The population cares—and they should care. It’s where we live, and we need to do a better job and clean up our act.”

With the world’s oceans being overfished and some sea life perishing from the results of algal bloom and coral reef disease, aquaculture has become a crucial undertaking to meet the increasing demand for seafood. And although the world is eating more farm-raised fish—50 percent of all fish consumed—only 1 percent of the production comes from within the United States, according to Paul Wills, research professor and associate director of research at Harbor Branch. There’s a laundry list of reasons for the disparity, he says, but at the top of the list is regulation. “There is a whole host of regulatory agencies to ensure aquaculture is environmentally sustainable, and it’s very expensive,” explains Wills. However,
Sullivan stresses the importance of the United States catching up to the rest of the world in this area, noting that  90 percent of the farm-raised fish Americans consume currently comes from Asia. “That’s a food security issue,” he says.

Paul Wills

The whole point of aquaculture is to stabilize the seafood supply. Says Wills: “The key is, how do we do aquaculture in a manner that is sustainable economically as well as environmentally?” The goal is not to compete with commercial fisheries, who are an important part of providing seafood to the population, but to fill a gap, he adds. “Worldwide, demand for fish is more than commercial fisheries can supply.” Wills says that of the 25,000 species of fish in existence, not all are suitable for farming. More than 20 species in the United States have been identified for marine aquaculture in the near future—and many more have potential.

While much of the focus at Harbor Branch is on food production and environmental sustainability, engineers and marine scientists are also assisting in the testing of national defense projects. One such project, dubbed the “grouper guard,” deploys goliath groupers as a natural defense system. It turns out these massive fish act something like guard dogs for the coast, says Sullivan. Territorial in nature, their behavior can alert us when something big is approaching. Another project relies on bioluminescent light
emitted by certain organisms to detect the presence, via satellites, of submarines. “Technical innovation is a huge part of what we’ll be doing going forward,” Sullivan says.

Sea veggies

Harbor Branch isn’t alone in advancing marine research and engineering. The institute’s scientists collaborate with other notable organizations, both private and public, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. “We all work together,” says Sullivan. “Researchers come here and give lectures, and we go there.” Being part of a university also gives Harbor Branch an important advantage, he adds. “It’s mutually beneficial, because we want to train the next generation of scientists and grant degrees in marine science.”

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