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Biological Station a part of community

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Personal essay

By Jack Payne

jackpayne@ufl.edu

The Nature Coast is a paradise for scientists because it poses so many fascinating riddles: What happened to the birds on Seahorse Key? Can we raise Sunray Venus clams? How does swimming with humans affect manatees? Could the Gulf oil spill affect the fishing for spotted seatrout?

This area is also a researchers’ magnet because of another asset: you. The people of Cedar Key and the communities in surrounding counties have already given a boost to an effort to expand what we know about the woods, water, and wildlife in these parts.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) has launched the Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) on the premise that science is more powerful when researchers work with the community to discover and disseminate.

Setting up shop in Cedar Key is a big step. That means we can move away from drive-by research and really embed scientists for days, even weeks, in a wet lab, classroom and bunkhouse we’re making out of an old waterfront motel.

And we’re already talking about dedicating part of the new station to a visitor center where locals and tourists can learn about the science going on in the area. We hope it will instill pride in locals who celebrate the natural beauty of the place they call home and give tourists one more thing to do in between spending money at restaurants, hotels, bait shops, and guide boats.

A steady stream of visiting scientists will also be a boon for the community beyond their discoveries. The two-day symposium we hosted (and opened to the public) with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the end of January brought in dozens of faculty and graduate students.

Earlier in January I booked 30 rooms here in town for a meeting of the leaders of UF/IFAS academic departments and research centers statewide.

I was so glad to bring them in to show off not only NCBS, but my home. I moved to Cedar Key in late 2014.

The welcome has been heartwarming. Local chefs cooked to order for me when I was exiled from my own table by a lengthy kitchen renovation. The Cedar Key Aquaculture Association gave me a pair of “Cedar Key Nikes,” the white clammer’s boots.

The welcome also showed me that beyond neighborliness, the folks of Cedar Key are interested in bringing science to their community – and participating in it.

When we wanted to tell the story in a two-minute film of how a community uses science to improve itself, you sent an All-Star cast, including Sue Colson, Heath Davis, and Shawn Stephenson.

Indeed, a big reason we believe we can solve so many riddles along the Nature Coast is that we know we can count on community partners in the search.

We know from the Cedar Key clam story that the people here will do the hard work necessary to put science to use, because we’ve seen it -- jumping into the water in January, hauling up the bags, spending evenings and weekends boning up on new techniques. It’s a story about a community pulling itself up by its clammer’s bootstraps.

Capt. Denny Voyles has instantly become one of those valuable community partners we’re seeking. Because he’s an expert guide who makes his living getting anglers to where the fish bite, he’s been invaluable in transporting our researchers to where we can find those same fish and tag them. With his help, we’ll get a better read on how many spotted seatrout can be harvested and still keep the population healthy so the area remains an angler’s mecca.

At a recent meeting of the NCBS steering committee, Andrew Gude, who manages several nearby national wildlife refuges for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said it well. We can pursue our interests by helping you pursue yours. We plan to work with the community to make the NCBS a success for the university and for the people of Florida.

We’re bound together in this. You know intuitively how important protection of your local environment is to your pocketbook. Here’s how you say it in statistics: 13 percent of the jobs in the Nature Coast area are dependent on natural resources, compared with just 1 percent statewide.

That’s why keeping the fishing business healthy and even establishing new economic enterprises such as oyster farming are so high on our research agenda. We’ll focus on science that serves the community’s ecological and economic well-being.

We offered a flavor of that at a recent reception we held at the Cedar Key Community Center. We sipped drinks and noshed and celebrated the science presented on the posters in the main hall.

It was a great night. And it was a chance for me to tell the attendees what I’ll end with here: Science depends on people working together, whether that’s the researchers working on a team or the surrounding community cooperating with scientists.

Thank you for your welcome. We aim to make the Nature Coast Biological Station part of what makes your community special.

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.