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Clearwater Marine Aquarium partners up for manatee, turtle and whale research

The aquarium will join forces with the Sea to Shore Alliance
Published Feb. 12

CLEARWATER — After five years of planning to expand its area of research, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced a new partnership Tuesday with a renowned research and animal conservation group to focus on helping manatees, sea turtles and North Atlantic right whales.

The aquarium is merging with the Sea to Shore Alliance, which over the past 10 years has made key advancements in manatee research and helped reduce ship speeds along the coast, which lowers the risk of the endangered right whales being struck and killed. The new division will be called the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute and will be under the direction of Sea to Shore's executive director, James "Buddy" Powell. The 14 Sea to Shore Alliance staff members will begin working under the new partnership effective immediately.

The aquarium has done research projects here and there but CEO David Yates felt like the organization had been lacking in that portion of its mission.

The move to partner will make the aquarium one of the few across the country to feature such advanced researchers, conservationists and rehabilitation efforts side-by-side, Powell said.

The scientist, with more than 50 years of field experience, said the organizations' missions are extremely compatible but lack certain capacities without one another.

"The research we do is aimed toward trying to better protect and conserve threatened marine species and their habitat," Powell said. "And then when you look at Clearwater and what they have been involved with over the years is the rescue and rehabilitation of individuals of species. So, they've been really focusing on the individual aspect and we're more focused on the population side of things."

The aquarium CMA found international fame with the 2011 Dolphin Tale movie about Winter, a dolphin given a prosthetic tail at the aquarium after being entangled in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral. Attendance shot up four-fold from 2010 numbers to 740,000 in 2012. The aquarium also was featured in Dolphin Tale's sequel, Dolphin Tale 2. The national stage the aquarium presents will allow Powell's research to be distributed more widely. Meanwhile, Powell will help the aquarium become more known for its research worldwide. Currently, Powell and his team work across the U.S., Belize and Cuba.

Yates called the partnership ''budget neutral,'' other than some expenses such as legal fees.

''Sea to Shores comes with its own funding,'' he said. "Any future expansion of the work may be funded by CMA and our resources.''

The aquarium is also undergoing a $71 million expansion to expand parking, guest space and add five dolphin pools. Staff will have room to treat about 45 rehabilitation cases at once, double what it can do now. With larger pools, they could take in nine more resident dolphins, 25 more turtles and create habitat for three manatees, which it didn't house before.The aquarium is also planning a private medical facility in Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to treat injured and stranded animals before releasing them.

"We want to do more about protecting marine life and we want to solve big problems," Yates said. "So this is a match made in heaven."

Contact McKenna Oxenden at moxenden@tampabay.com. Follow @mack_oxenden

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