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Growing Science by the Sea

Growing Science by the Sea
The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute (MSI) is tucked away in the small South Texas town of Port Aransas, more than 200 miles from Austin. The campus is nestled among marshland, sand dunes and seagulls, mere yards from the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a time of change for MSI, as it expands its activities in the areas of research, education and community outreach. MSI illustrates how--through cooperation with individuals, organizations and government--the university’s impact extends far beyond the “Forty Acres” in Austin.

Collaboration with an environmental conservation group has made possible the building of an important new larval fish research laboratory, which should be open for research in August. Findings from the research facility will be used to help native fish populations, benefiting Texas seaside communities that rely upon commercial and recreational fishing.

MSI has partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to create the Wetlands Education Center, an educational resource for the citizens of Texas and “living laboratory” for MSI students and scientists. Construction of the center will continue well beyond this year, but local school groups are already involved, helping to plant the new wetlands.

The Wetlands Education Center is an educational component of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The reserve, managed by the MSI, comprises 185,708 acres of marshes, mangroves, open water and coastal prairie in Refugio and Aransas counties. Plans are being drawn up right now for the reserve headquarters, which will include offices and laboratories for scientists, dorms for visiting researchers and educational resources for general visitors and students.

MSI is also reaching out to the neighboring community of Rockport, with two projects planned for the area. The first involves an education center along Copano Bay, in cooperation with an organization dedicated to helping people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. The second calls for the construction of a multi-purpose civic center in downtown Rockport, involving the local chamber of commerce and navigation district.

“There are all sorts of dreams on the drawing board,” MSI Director Lee Fuiman said.

Larval Research Facility

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Texas donated $700,000 to construct a larval research laboratory where MSI scientists can research how to grow native Texas fish. The 3,000-square-foot laboratory is designed so scientists can mimic real-world gulf conditions, including the changing of seasons, in order to understand how certain fish develop from spawning into maturity.

MSI has a strong reputation for larviculture and mariculture, and MSI scientists were the first to successfully breed and grow red drum, also known as redfish, in the controlled environments of laboratories. A popular game fish, farm-raised red drum are released regularly into Texas waters to help replenish native populations. Farmed red drum also now appears in supermarkets.

“Commercial hatcheries produce red drum for markets, for the table,” Fuiman said. “There’s no commercial harvest of wild-caught red drum in Texas anymore.”

MSI scientists are hoping for similar success with other Texas fishes, and the CCA will help by suggesting species to study. Current candidates include cobia (ling or lemon fish), a white-meat fish averaging 15 to 30 pounds, and flounder, a popular fish whose numbers in the wild have been decreasing.

Wetlands Education Center

Excavation of the Wetlands Education Center by the Army Corps of Engineers will be finished soon. The Corps was contracted for the project partly because the wetlands abut the Corpus Christi ship channel. The Corps built the channel in the late 1800s and continues to have maintenance obligations.

“This originally was a marsh area,” MSI Assistant Director Steven Lanoux said. “The creation of marsh here is actually a remediation of marsh destroyed 120 years ago.”

The Wetlands Education Center will be managed by Rick Tinnin, who is director of education programs at MSI and education coordinator for the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The center will become a focal point for many new and existing educational programs.

Once dug, the 3.5-acre area will fill with seawater, forming a marsh ranging from very shallow to eight or nine feet deep. Groups of students from local schools, along with senior citizens from the MSI’s Elderhostel program, will transplant native flora to the created marsh environment. The plants will grow naturally there, allowing MSI scientists and graduate students to compare the development of the created marsh to nearby native marshes.

In the future, the wetlands center will feature a boardwalk and observation platforms open to the public, so that people can walk among the marsh without disturbing the environment. Other projects include an expanded visitor’s center, aquarium displays and more parking to accommodate school buses.

Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve

MSI plans to build the Mission-Aransas NERR headquarters at the Port Aransas campus, which lies at the southernmost corner of the reserve. The institute has an agreement with a local architecture firm to plan the headquarters and is waiting to proceed according to federal funding decisions, which should be announced in fiscal year 2007 or 2008.

The headquarters will accommodate administration and outreach offices, and several laboratories and offices for visiting scientists. It will also have a “wet lab” area, similar to the 3,000-square-foot larval culture laboratory, but on a smaller scale.

Future plans include additional laboratories and offices and relocating the MSI library to a larger facility.

In May 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) designated the Mission-Aransas NERR, with the MSI as its lead agency. Mission-Aransas NERR is one of 27 NOAA coastal reserves in the United States, and the only one on the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Of these reserves, Mission-Aransas NERR is among the largest and most pristine.The main purpose of the reserve is to monitor short- and long-term changes in the environment. The reserve includes Copano, Aransas and Mesquite bays, the northern portion of Matagorda Island, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the mainland, and also the estuarine portion of the Mission River.

“The Mission-Aransas NERR is non-regulatory. It sets aside an area as a baseline for research, so we can monitor it and see how the environment under very restrictive future development evolves, as compared to areas that are not regulated,” Lanoux said. “It’s a benign way of preserving as much as possible of the existing ecosystem.”

Beyond Port Aransas

Camp Aranzazu, a camp for disabled and chronically ill people, has offered MSI 12 acres of land on Copano Bay, six miles outside the town of Rockport and 20 miles from Port Aransas. The land is adjacent to the boundary of the Mission-Aransas NERR. This land could be used by MSI to create a natural, environmental education center, to which campers and the public would have access.

“The idea is that the campers can take advantage of the educational facility,” said Fuiman. “It would not be exclusively for camp [Aranzazu] use.”

Visitors and researchers could compare this large natural wetlands to the smaller, created wetlands on the MSI campus. The education center could also feature a boardwalk system, a small visitor’s center and a boat launch area.

The MSI is also looking at creating a physical presence in downtown Rockport, in conjunction with the Aransas County Navigation District and the Rockport Chamber of Commerce.

They would like to create a multi-faceted community facility, incorporating a tourist center, marine educational center, museum and chamber of commerce.

“The City of Rockport really wants us to work with them. We want to be a part of this new center if we can,” Lanoux said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us to send an environmental message, have an education center, support Mission-Aransas NERR and point the arrow back to MSI, and a bigger arrow back to UT-Austin – to show where our involvement is in places people don’t usually think about.”

- By Patrick Brendel
UTeach Goes National
Faculty receive Sloan Research Fellowships


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Thursday, 23 September 2021

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