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Cedar Key and the
Nature Coast Biological Station
By Jack Payne
Discovering what makes the Nature Coast special is essential to keeping it that way. Much more than in other parts of Florida, your livelihood depends on jobs related to local waters, woods, and wildlife.
We need to know more about what makes fish bite, reefs thrive, clams grow, forests flourish, and waters run pure. If we don’t keep discovering, we’re leaving money and jobs on the table. We’re even risking loss of what we have now unless we put a microscope to the question of how much we can take from the Nature Coast without taking too much.
Economics aside, I moved here for what I suspect is the same reason you moved here – or decided to stay if you were lucky enough to be born here. I still want a piece of the Gulf Coast to resemble “old” or “real” Florida, not a built-up coast like in Naples, Miami Beach, or Daytona.
This month the organization I lead, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS, is opening a people’s house for the science of coastal Hernando to Wakulla counties. It will be a hub for keeping the region profitable and keeping it real.
The Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key will feature an experimental clam hatchery, a miniaquarium, and a team of scientists dedicated to a deeper understanding of the region.
Some of them are already your neighbors. Clam aquaculture expert Leslie Sturmer has been in Cedar Key since the days of the gill net ban. Center director Mike Allen drove to the coast to fish local waters for years before making it his home. Savanna Barry lives near the station and roams the coast giving talks about safe boating while scalloping, how to free birds from fishing lines, and why seagrass is so important.
Some of those scientists were among those who responded to my call two years ago to join forces on the premise that we can do more collectively than we can separately. Good science depends on teamwork.
The biological station won’t just be a place to work. It will be a matchmaker to help scientists identify others interested in the same problems but employ a different expertise in the search for solutions. The station’s big-picture outlook for the region will help it set research priorities and to coordinate outreach so that we do a better job sharing what we know with you.
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The station will also be a listening post. By living and working among you, these scientists will have a greater opportunity to learn from you about what it is that needs to be investigated.
As a magnet for scientists, it will also attract the partnership and funding of agencies that rely on science to manage the land and water of the region. Those partnerships will mean more coordinated efforts that translate into more efficient use of taxpayer funds.
We always knew we couldn’t do all this from Gainesville. With a building as a basecamp for field work, though, we can do more diving and less driving.
We can also glean valuable information from you. We’ll be asking you to become citizen scientists counting horseshoe crabs, collecting water samples, and letting us know you caught a tagged a fish.
We’ll continue interviewing boat captains, clammers, bait store operators, and restaurateurs to know what’s really going on. We may generate the facts and figures from what we see under the microscope, but you will influence what it is we’re looking at in the first place.
We hope to continue these community conversations at our open house on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 552 1st St. in Cedar Key.
You already chose not to take the easy route to a comfy living. Living off the beaten path requires a determination to take on hard work and sometimes hard luck from what the sky or the tides deliver.
You shouldn’t have to choose between your livelihood and your lifestyle. Science can help you live on your own terms. We at UF/IFAS love science for science’s sake, but our inquiry will be driven by what it means for our neighbors – 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.