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Florida Institute of Technology sets sights on Shores

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of May 30, 2013)
Image: Artist's rendering of FIT's Vero Beach Research Center.

The Florida Institute of Technology is making a major push to expand its presence on the barrier island with new buildings, laboratories and research projects.

FIT has had a small lab and aquaculture operation adjacent to Tracking Station Park in Indian River Shores since 1980, when the U.S. Air Force decommissioned the property and turned four acres over to the school on a 30-year lease.

The Melbourne-based university took ownership of the property in 2010 and now plans to build a 20,000-square-foot laboratory and education building to house a number of research programs aimed at protecting and restoring the Indian River Lagoon and other endangered coastal habitats.

One research group has already moved to the existing lab building on the site just north of Jaycee Park, and a new FIT research project focused on fish population restoration got under way last week on private conservation land in John’s Island.

“We plan to build a significant new building that will include some kind of public facility where members of the community can observe our marine and aquaculture labs,” says Dr. Anthony James Catanese, president of FIT. “We want to have a learning center and other features that will make the lab a destination people will drive in to visit.”

Fundraising is underway for the building, which can be customized to accommodate programs donors are interested in. Catanese expects the state-of-the-art facility to cost approximately $10 million and be finished sometime within the next several years.

Catanese says FIT plans to add a number of new faculty when the planned lab and education building is complete and expand research into the areas of lagoon preservation, beach renourishment, ocean engineering and general oceanography, bringing many more scientists and science students to Vero Beach.

“There have been rumors since we got ownership of the property that we offered to sell it to developers, but that is absolutely untrue,” Catanese says. “Our goal is to become much more involved in Indian River County and get people to view us as their private technological university.”

Founded in 1958 as Brevard Engineering College to offer continuing education opportunities to scientists, engineers and technicians working for NASA at Cape Canaveral, the school has become one of the top-ranked technical colleges in the nation in a relatively short period of time.

Catanese says expanding from aeronautics and space technology to marine biology was a natural for a coastal university. “Much of the technology used for monitoring the oceans comes from the space programs. For instance, all of the tags that get put on turtles and fish are satellites. Marine biology and ocean engineering are now the most rapidly growing programs at our university.”

The bunker-like concrete block buildings FIT scientists use now at the Tracking Station site were built by the air force in the 1960s, according to Professor Junda Lin, director of the Vero Beach Marine Laboratory.

Current research at the Vero lab includes Nancy Pham’s study of Indian River Lagoon seahorses.

Pham, who is site manager as well as a research scientist, is launching a summer camp this June that will offer children a rare opportunity to work alongside scientists while learning about aquaculture and marine biology in a picturesque seaside setting.

Lin is studying the reproduction and breeding of ornamental fish. His research has commercial, conservation and pure science applications.

Lin says Florida is the center of the billion-dollar ornamental fish industry and he is working to improve cultivation of popular species and figure out how to raise other species people want for aquariums. 

The work has important conservation implications because most ornamentals are taken from reef environments in the ocean, often with the use of cyanide or explosives that damage marine habitat and deplete natural stocks.

The pure science comes as he unravels mysteries of reproduction, growth and survival that have relevance far beyond the pursuit of ornamental fish production.

Dr. John Shenker is studying the development and behavior of juvenile snook and tarpon at the Mangrove Garden Foundation in John’s Island.

Assisted by an FIT graduate student and three undergrads, he has installed a network of underwater antennas to track the movement of fish in response to environmental events such as rain, currents and changes in lagoon salinity.

“We want to learn more about how  small fish use the mangroves as a nursery so as to figure out optimal habitat requirements,” says Shenker.

“The most intriguing thing we are doing is working on a way of tagging very small tarpon and snook with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags like those put in dogs and cats.

“The tags are picked up by the underwater antenna, allowing us to see what the fish do when there are changes in the environment. Do they stay put or leave? If they stay put, do they die? Our ultimate goal is to figure out how to restore our nursery habitats and recreational fisheries.” 

Shenker says the Mangrove Garden research will last about a year. He has a permit in hand to expand his experiments to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Shenker’s work is funded by the Tarpon and Bonefish Trust, a Key Largo-based research and education organization that conducts a wide range of results-oriented research in Florida, Hawaii and other areas, collaborating with top marine science institutes and universities to learn how to protect and restore fish populations and marine ecosystems.

Tarpon and Bonefish Trust scientist Dr. Aaron Adams moved his headquarters to FIT’s Tracking Station laboratory in April.

He is collaborating with Shenker on the snook and tarpon study and looking at other possible areas of research including work related to sea grass restoration, a pressing priority in the lagoon.