Nonprofit helps marine scientists study Southwest Florida’s waters

Published: December 1, 2022 3:44 PM EST
Updated: December 1, 2022 5:07 PM EST

While scientists work to learn more about Southwest Florida’s beautiful waters, one nonprofit is helping with widespread data collection by engaging citizen scientists.

When it comes to researching the ocean and other marine environments, the hard part is the sheer vastness of the area that needs to be covered.

“You can’t do everything,” said Dr. Mike Parsons, professor of marine science at the Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University. “And so you have limited time, you have limited resources.”

There are limited research vessels, team members, and time for widespread sample collection. The International Seakeepers Society wants to ease that problem by giving marine scientists extra pairs of hands to do that hard work.

“Seakeepers’ mission is to facilitate marine research, conservation efforts, and education, and we do that by linking the yachting and boating communities with the scientific and academic communities,” said Tony Gilbert, program director for the International Seakeepers Society.

The society’s new initiative is called the Neuston Net, a citizen scientist-run program.

“You don’t necessarily require a scientist or their team to be on board of a yacht or a boat to collect data,” Gilbert said.

The Seakeepers supply nets for people to take out on boats to collect samples for research projects that interest them.

“They’re basically these big plankton nets, and they have a very fine mesh on them,” said Katie Sheehan, an associate with the International Seakeepers Society. “You can tow them through the water behind the boat and scoop up whatever’s on the surface.”

WINK News had the chance to see one of the nets in use aboard the Hogarth research vessel in October. The infinitesimal phytoplankton could be seen floating around after being pulled aboard.

“We’re using this opportunity, as they are all over in the ocean, to grab samples so we can see this dispersal and really get an assessment of what’s going on,” Parsons said.

Parson collaborates with the Seakeepers while looking at sargassum, a type of seaweed.

“A lot of organisms can raft on it and float around in the water, so that’s one thing we’re interested in to see: Who’s taking a ride on these rafts of sargassum,” Parsons said.

Specifically, the organism that causes ciguatera fish poisoning, which can also impact humans. Algal research is also part of this partnership.

“Dr. Joseph Montoya is also studying sargassum, but he studies the nitrogen content, which can indicate harmful algal blooms,” Sheehan said. “And then Dr. Rebecca Helm studies life on the ocean surface.”

If you have a boat, no matter the size or shape, there’s work to be done, and you can help. To find out how to get involved with the program, click here.