FIU’s environmental research expands

Diego Rodriguez/contributing writer


FIU will expand its scientific environmental research capabilities by joining a new venture with the Rookery Bay Reserve in Collier County.

As part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, the project will be responsible for habitat mapping and the monitoring and research of avian ecology, water quality and weather, according to Rookery Bay Reserve Director Keith Laakkonen.

James Fourqurean, director of the FIU Marine Education and Research Initiative in the Florida Keys, pointed out that the partnership is attributed to the University’s academic background in collaborating with similar programs such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“Our scientists have been conducting research and monitoring activities in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary since its inception in 1990,” said Fourqurean.

According to Fourqurean, half of the people who work at the sanctuary are University employees.

“Jim and I were very excited that each of our institutions were very supportive of this concept. We developed a vision for this partnership, both in the short- and long-term, that we look forward to implementing, and increasing collaboration between Rookery Bay Research Reserve and FIU,” said Laakkonen.

According to Laakkonen, 11 FIU staff research and education positions have been created for this program as well as a maximum of five internships per year.   

“We typically offer seasonal internships for sea turtle, beach-nesting bird and water-quality monitoring in our research department, as well as communications internships. We plan to also offer environmental education internships,” said Laakkonen.

For more information about these opportunities:

The project, funded through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in collaboration with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, will offer graduate research opportunities by constructing a joint educational support facility alongside the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center.

Laakkonen believes this construction will help ongoing research programs and attract new research focus and educational opportunities for local students in the local area.

“There are interesting needs to understand not just the natural sciences but also the social sciences of living in a coastal zone,” Fourqurean said.

Fourqurean points out that depending on the needs of the program, new internship positions may open up for other disciplines such as landscape architecture, engineering and environmental law.

During a press release announcing this partnership, Laakkonen emphasized the importance of developing academic plans that will enhance environmental understanding.

Current watershed-level restoration projects, such as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, make this a critical time for long-term research, education and stewardship in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.”

CERP is a conjunction between the state and federal governments intended to improve and protect south Florida ecosystems, as well as providing water supply and flood protection.

In total, the CERP plan costs over $10 billion, funding 60 projects that will take more than 30 years to complete. The 2016-2017 Florida First budget signed by Governor Scott provides $100 million for CERP projects, says Laakkonen.

One of the largest components of the CERP plan is The Picayune Strand State Forest; it is located within the reserve’s watershed, and according to Laakkonen, after its completion, freshwater flow is expected to be more evenly distributed between the three bays, therefore allowing a diversity of plants and animals to survive in each bay.

The reserve and FIU staff are directly involved in estuarine monitoring to demonstrate the success of the project and our data is the official estuarine performance measure for this project,” said Laakkonen.

Furthermore, the University now operates the Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, which specializes in training students and scientists to measure the transport of pollution and contaminants to the environment.

“Our focus is to observe how chemicals move through the everglades out to the mangroves and the Gulf of Mexico, and we have designated Rookery Bay as one of the end points along that transport process”, said Fourqurean.

This project will bring FIU closer to Collier County, but the main goal is to build the research facility at the reserve with FIU faculty and students. That would require fund raising efforts and support from the university as well, says Fourqurean.  


Image by sdobie, retrieved from flickr:

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