There is a reason that one of the newer, more modern buildings at Jacksonville University is way in back of the campus, on the river, almost hidden among the rowing center, a retention pond and athletic facilities.
You get the idea that this is not just another college building when the first thing you see in the lobby is the large video monitor showing — in real, live time — how much electricity and water the building is consuming and the water, air and wind conditions on the St. Johns River and at Mayport on the Atlantic Ocean. Even the salinity.
But the real spirit of the at Jacksonville University is out back of the building, on the strip of overgrown, jungly riverfront between the building and the St. Johns. You might think of them as just the sort of unkempt, mosquito-breeding weeds and trees you see along Florida rivers and marshes.
There is, however, serious and deliberate purpose to these wetlands — human-made, carefully cultivated to recreate a natural environment to allow scientific study and teaching as part of the Marine Science Research Institute’s expansive mission.
That mission nurtures an interactive, synergistic, complex of state, private, local and international research and teaching that generates the energy of the institute. A lot happens in and around that building, opening out onto the river and extending all the way to the ocean at Mayport and beyond.
Of course, it includes labs and a floating classroom for the JU marine science curriculum for undergraduate and master’s students, but its 30,000 square feet also houses the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regional offices and labs, the Millar Wilson Laboratory for Environmental Chemistry, classes for Duval middle-school and high-school students and the base for OCEARCH, the ocean-borne lab that helps scientists collect “previously unattainable” data from the ocean, including its famous shark tagging and monitoring.
The idea is that all these activities, from teaching marine science to 12-year-olds to facilitating local and international research, will be more effective if done collaboratively. Imagine that 12-year-old looking up to and asking questions of Chris Fischer, the founder and expedition leader of OCEARCH and JU “explorer in residence” who has led 32 global expeditions.
Emily Floore, education director for the Riverkeeper, said the school kids value the MSRI experience. “They love coming to the college campus. It opens their eyes to what’s possible. They love meeting the professors. Touring the building is a lot of fun for them, learning about the wetlands, reading the little kiosks with information.
“It’s invigorating. You have a lot of expertise in the building. Next door is FWC, the professors are down the hall. If a student asks a question about manatees I can’t answer, I can walk down the hall and talk to Dr. (Gerry) Pinto, the manatee expert. The accessibility to information is invaluable. Even the scientists come over to talk to us about things they want to do in education.”
The Marine Science Research Institute is a reification of the conclusion of the several-year truJax visioning process that defined Jacksonville’s DNA as “the water life center of America.”
How the institute came to be
As logical and obvious as it may seem now, the Marine Science Research Institute, now 10 years old, came about through the combined forces, at several levels, of vision, happenstance and old-fashioned politics.
The vision dates back more than 30 years, even before Quinton White began the marine science program at JU. White and then-President Paul Tipton worked the idea into a master plan for the university. It carried over into the presidency of Kerry Romesburg beginning in 2004.
White, now professor of biology and marine science and founding executive director of MSRI, remembered, “Kerry said one of the first things that we’re talking about is the idea of building an institute on the water. And he finally said I think we can go do it. Let’s go do it.”
Then came the happenstance. “About that same time,” White said, “Fish and Wildlife, the state agency, which had not paid much attention to Northeast Florida at all, started working on the St. Johns River and moved a team up here. They were housed at Cecil Field, and some of their staff came to me and said, you know, we have great facilities, but we’re in a horrible location. It takes us an hour to go anywhere. We can’t be at Cecil Field and do work on the water. Is there anything at JU?
“At the time, the president’s home, which is now the River House, was vacant. So I asked the president, can we put Fish and Wildlife in the River House? He said yeah. So they came down, and then when we began the idea of building a building …”
Well, that’s when the politics came into the mix.
Will Weatherford, a JU alumnus who had been student body president, was an aide to the speaker of the Florida House, whose son came to JU as a student and, in White’s telling, did well, making his father “super happy.”
At the same time, the president of the state Senate was Sen. Jim King, a longtime friend of White who loved the idea of an institute.
“So we had a sponsor in the house and a sponsor in the Senate, and they put $1.25 million in the budget to add to the money that we were putting together for the institute — we had gotten some federal earmarks back in the day. So it passed the Legislature,” White said.
“And the governor (then Jeb Bush) vetoed it. Jeb’s office called me and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. You know Jim King and the governor are at odds over every little thing going on, and Jeb cannot let Jim have this win. So we’re going to veto your project, but we love your project. Fish and Wildlife loves it. They want it. So tell you what. Come back next year, and we’ll get $1.5 million dollars.’ Wow. And so I said OK, that works.”
About the same time, White had been involved in getting the Riverkeeper started, so it came aboard.
Meanwhile, he says he and Lex Waters, then a marine science teacher at Mandarin High School, had long dreamed of starting a JU program for high-schoolers. White serendipitously met Duval County Public Schools then-Superintendent Joey Wise on his first day on the job and pitched the dream, and he loved the idea.
“And he has the idea of making Terry Parker High School an environmental magnet, so we end up with Duval County plugged into the site,” White said.
“So all this stuff sort of came together. And to be honest, it exceeded my expectations.”
Now, how to pay for it.
White cobbled together dollars from a variety of sources. “We got about $1 million on federal earmarks, we got $1.5 million out of the state, we got a million dollars here, $500,000 there — 125 different people donated to build this building. And here we are.”
Now the building is full and there are plans to add a third floor at the Marine Science Research Institute.
And then comes OCEARCH
In the meantime, the institute is expanding beyond the campus. OCEARCH had been looking for an academic home and connected with JU through professional organizations.
“I was talking to a variety of people,” White remembers, “and I had said OCEARCH has some special needs. They really can’t go to a state university because of all the bureaucracy, and there are not many independent facilities that are really set up for this kind of thing.
“Apparently people kept saying (to OCEARCH) oh, you need to go talk to JU, you need to talk to Quint White at JU. So here we are now building a facility at Mayport.”
JU is paying the city $1 a year for a 10-year lease of land and two historic buildings that, within a couple of years and with a new dock, will become OCEARCH’s home base. One building, which resembles a house, will become the project’s office, and the other, a warehouse, eventually will become a place where people can visit and learn about OCEARCH and sharks.
“We definitely want to have a shark center — a visitor center — so people can plug into
the latest white shark research information in the world,” Fischer told the T-U last year.
For now, White said the city is almost done with the design phase of the project, “and we’re halfway through the funding of the dock itself. So, I think, probably in about a year they’ll start construction on it.”
The message of LEED Gold
When you first visit the Marine Science Research Institute on the JU campus, you may notice it wasn’t built lengthwise along the river to take advantage of the expansive views, as a commercial building might be, but rather is perpendicular to the river.
That’s because of the institute’s commitment to the larger environment, not just the river and the ocean. The building was planned to be a sustainable and environmentally friendly structure, certified as a “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED).
Its east-west orientation is to reduce the solar heat concentration. Stretching it along the river would capture more sunlight. The roof of the building is white, to reflect the heat and reduce costs. If that third floor happens, the plan is to add solar panels.
As you approach the building, you see a 10,000-gallon cistern that holds rain water“harvested” from the roof and used for toilets, washing boats and irrigation.
The ground floor is designed to accommodate flooding by housing the wet labs and various equipment. The offices, classrooms and smaller labs are on the second floor.
The Marine Science Research Institute touts other LEED features: solar hot water, waterless urinals, use of natural and low-energy lighting, “low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints,” limited nearby paved parking to avoid runoff into the St. Johns, native drought-tolerant plants for landscaping, high-efficiency heating and cooling and showers available to encourage biking to work or class.
Looking south from the building’s second-floor observation deck, you read a sign explaining the grassy, weedy area below: “Retention and treatment of storm water is important to the health of the St. Johns River. This stormwater retention pond is designed with native wetland plant species that will filter water before it flows in the river.
Turn to the west, and you see that overgrown, jungly riverfront that is just as purposeful. Here’s how White explained it in the monthly column he writes for the Times-Union:
“These littoral zones are the edges of tributaries, rivers, streams, and ocean where vegetation grows require constant water. Both the submerged aquatic vegetation, often called sea grasses, and the emergent wetland vegetation, typical of salt marshes, provide essential food and habitat for virtually all marine and aquatic life at some point in their lives. Often these areas are the nursery grounds for many marine or aquatic species. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the commercially important species of fish, crabs, oysters and clams rely on these areas for their survival.
“However, they also serve another critical function. They are the kidneys of our planet. They filter the water as it runs off the land and help to absorb sediment, nutrients and pollutants. As we filled in wetlands, we also watched as water quality declined.
“Still, another function of these wetland systems that we are just beginning to appreciate
is their ability to protect upland areas from storm surge and flooding.”
White knows about the filtering power of the wetlands next to MSRI because, for three years after the building was built, institute scientists studied water discharged from the building toward river. “We found it was an excellent filter, removing nutrients and turbidity before the water flowed into the river.”
Researching for knowledge
Marine Science Research Institute scientists and students conduct a wide range of research on issues affecting the St. Johns River and the connected Atlantic coastal waters. The most popular, or publicized, projects involve two big creatures, one homely and lovable, the other mighty and fearsome.
The coming to MSRI of OCEARCH three years ago added the aura of the great white shark, which the project tags and tracks all along the east coast. In 34 expeditions over the years, OCEARCH says it has captured and tagged 416 animals. More than a dozen blood and tissue samples are collected from each to allow studies of — brace yourself — “the reproductive condition, reproductive cycle, genetic analysis, diet using stable isotopes and fatty acids, gestation period, inorganic and organic contaminant loads, the fecundity of white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, studying parasite species presence, abundance, and infection sites in white sharks.”
JU has been studying manatees for 25 years on behalf of the city’s Manatee Protection Plan, helping update it every year, with the goal of protecting the big, lumbering, gentle creatures from careless boats and, most recently, from acoustic damage from dredges.
Gerry Pinto, the institute’s associate research scientist, said the city has provided money for a boating compliance study. “It will take place as soon as we can get out there. It’s geared to looking at how well people follow speed-zone restrictions in certain sites, basically to see whether people are speeding or not speeding in manatee zones.” The Marine Science Research Institute trains observers to assess boat speed, and the city will use the information for speed-limit enforcement.
Six years ago, the city and the Coastal Conservation Association led an effort to recreate some of the natural state of the St. Johns by sinking concrete rubble into the river near San Marco to build two artificial reefs.
“These are not reefs like you might imagine populated by coral and colorful fish,” White wrote in the T-U, “but rather they are concrete that gradually allows first barnacles, then oysters and finally mussels to grow and cover the concrete. ”
The institute monitors the reefs to see how they’re working. Within 18 months, anglers were catching sportfish there. Country music star Kenny Chesney, who helped fund the project, said, “Looking at the underwater sonar, it’s amazing. In only 18 months, the reefs aren’t just alive, they’re thriving with life.”
Graduate students continue to evaluate the reefs — measuring organisms that are growing or recolonizing, how many people know about the reefs, what fish they are catching. The researchers use cameras to monitor the sites and interviews at board ramps.
“They’re finding that hurricanes have a big impact,” Pinto said. “Most organisms died out during the hurricane, but now that salinity is returning closer to normal, the colonizing organisms are coming back.”
There’s even a mini artificial reef in an aquarium in the MSRI building so students can take samples from the river reefs and keep them in the aquarium to monitor and study, then return them to the reefs in the river.
Marine Science Research Institute scientists now have several projects concerning the harmful blue-green algae blooms that plague Florida’s lakes and rivers, including use of a spectrophotometer, a device that measures the concentration of substances dissolved in a solution by measuring the amount of the light that is absorbed by the solution.
In the spirit of collaboration at MSRI, some of the research proposals under consideration for funding are from graduate students, advised by faculty and scientists, in pursuit of the students’ master’s degrees. Some of these pending projects:
Use OCEARCH to gather muscle tissue samples of great white and tiger sharks and measure the concentrations of metals to evaluate the overall health of the sharks, which “serve an important ecological role in ocean ecosystems,” and to improve conservation.
Analyze the plastics found in the intestines of bottlenose dolphins in Northeast Florida to increase public awareness of the impact of using straws and other single-use plastics and the value of more sustainable options and to encourage policy changes.
Assess the nesting conditions of loggerhead sea turtles on six Northeastern Florida beaches to help engineers and policymakers make decisions about location and sand types for beach restorations.
Observe, track and analyze the “fine scale” movement patterns of tiger sharks around the island of Bimini to better understand their habitat and conservation efforts in light of the importance of eco-tourism to the Bahamian economy.
Study the migratory paths and nesting strategies of threatened loggerhead and green sea turtles to improve conservation policies and preserve their habitats.
Identify where the harmful ciguatoxins accumulate in red lionfish along the Florida coast. There is an effort to reduce Lionfish, a tenacious invasive species, by encouraging human consumption, and this work would help locate where humans may be at risk.
Use drones during the 2020 OCEARCH Nova Scotia expedition to locate and observe grey seal colonies and adjacent great white shark feeding zones to help find and tag more sharks.
Deploy acoustic receivers and tag sandbar sharks around the St. Johns River Inlet. The study is to gather data on shark movement and habitat, which will inform policy to protect habitats and, secondarily, help maintain “aesthetically pleasing, clean beach areas for the public.”
Analyze heavy metal in tissues of stranded bottlenose dolphins. Metals can be concentrated by human practices such as erosion, mining, stormwater runoff, wastewater effluent, roofs, gutters, pipes and oil refineries. The study is to inform the public and maybe lead to state regulatory policy changes for stricter limits on metal use and discharge into aquatic systems.
All of those pieces of knowledge will be invested back into the institute’s dynamic collaboration of scientists, scholars and policymakers for the St. Johns and the Atlantic, the bigger parts of Jacksonville’s “water life.”
“The original thinking behind the MSRI concept was it would not only be the highest level teaching institution,” President Tim Cost said. “But also, the fact it’s an ‘institute’ meant it had a broader mandate, that it would be a thought leader, do research, provide insight to the community or the community of those interested in the water. And that is exactly what Quint has done.”
Frank Denton, retired editor of The Florida Times-Union and of J magazine, lives in Riverside.