Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: How to become a citizen-scientist in the waters north of Tampa Bay

By some estimates, a quart of horseshoe crab blood is worth $15,000. So it's in our interest to count crabs on Florida's shoreline.

There aren't enough scientists to do all the beachcombing that requires. Nor are there enough to do field tests in the fishing village an hour north of Tampa Bay to verify the clams you eat in local restaurants are being farmed in clean water.

Scientists are finding fish in Apalachicola that previously hadn't been seen north of Tampa. Again, collecting data to help them figure out why is too big a job for them to do alone.

Researchers rely on citizen scientists for help. Anglers send scientists DNA samples from their catch. Groups do spot crab counts on the Gulf Coast. Other volunteers sample the water near the clam farms.

All these efforts will get a boost from a new University of Florida people's house of marine science in that clam farming village, Cedar Key. The Nature Coast Biological Station, or NCBS, will also be a headquarters for faculty with advanced training, equipment and agency funding. But UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences built NCBS in part to increase the connection between scientists and the community.

Citizen science is both a scientist's force multiplier and a way for the average Florida resident to participate in expanding what we know about "old" or "real" Florida. In this case, the science is focused on one of the most pristine stretches of coastline in the continental United States.

That knowledge is increasingly important in conserving wild spaces in a state that gets 1,000 new residents a day and more than 100 million visitors a year. Much more than in other parts of the state, the economy of the Gulf Coast north of Tampa relies on a healthy natural environment.

Fishing boat captains, birdwatching guides, foresters, kayak rental operators and clam farmers need a healthy Gulf Coast to make their living. So do the people who work in the bait shops, restaurants and fuel stations frequented by the weekend warriors who come in to hook a snook or spot a spoonbill.

UF/IFAS aims to develop NCBS into a Woods Hole of the Southeast. Individual scientists have long sought answers to the Nature Coast's mysteries. UF emeritus professor Jane Brockmann's decades of work on horseshoe crabs comes to mind.

NCBS will bring together government agencies, industry partners, and UF and other universities' experts to accelerate and strengthen such science. That will help us treat the coast so it continues to bolster the economy and the environment.

This organized effort is essential if we're to get beyond anecdotal evidence that our horseshoe crab population is in worrisome decline. Worrisome, because we may some day need the crabs' blood for use testing the sterility of medical equipment and of any drug you've received through a shot.

Florida's horseshoe crabs aren't currently harvested for biomedical use as crabs are elsewhere, but the high value of their blue blood has prompted a few companies to apply for permits. That could put more pressure on a species already used for bait and in aquaria.

NCBS extension agent Savanna Barry is cooperating with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to organize volunteers to collect data on crabs. She is training people, many with no scientific backgrounds, to safely pick up crabs, weigh them, measure their brown shells, and tag them.

If you find a tagged crab yourself, please report it. The sightings help with the research.

She's starting in the Cedar Key area but plans to expand her volunteer force to cover much more of Florida's coastline. FWC needs to the information to make science-based decisions on the state's horseshoe crabs.

Barry is also teaching people how to untangle birds from fishing lines. Her colleagues are teaching fishing boat captains to tag fish for counts of underwater life so we don't overfish it.

NCBS has already organized beach cleanups and public lectures. Its experts also serve the finest clam dip in Florida made with clams it raises in their experimental hatchery. And they don aprons and serve it to friends, neighbors and visitors at the annual Cedar Key Seafood Festival (Oct. 21-22).

The doors open to NCBS today, when it holds a community open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to mark completion of the first phase of construction (there are plans for a miniaquarium sponsored by the Florida Aquarium later).

If you've ever gone casting for snook, savored a bowl of clam chowder, or been vaccinated, you stand to benefit from the Nature Coast Biological Station's science. A central premise of this new lab is that the gulf's future depends on solid science, and that solid science depends in part on you.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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