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Junior Scientists Make Waves

Through a partnership between Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Indian River Land Trust, young minds are helping shape the future of conservation

Andrew collects a water sample from an impoundment.

Andrew collects a water sample from an impoundment.

Behind a south Vero Beach housing development lies a hidden world anchored by thick mangroves and wetlands that eventually blend with the Indian River Lagoon. A short walk on a mosquito dike brings me to Dr. Dennis Hanisak, research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Hanisak is waiting for a boat to dock, and it soon arrives for the five eager high school students gathered along with their nets, tools and high-tech gear for some scientific field research, the kind normally reserved for graduate students and grant recipients. “These five kids are doing a great job,” he says proudly. “Every one of them has been here every week and they all share the load.”

Anjaleah from Sebastian River High School passes equipment onto the boat from the dock. “We’ll record data on how the seagrass is growing and see how we can possibly grow more, both for the animals that depend on it and to help clean and oxygenate the water.” They bundle into the boat and take off for a uniquely robust seagrass bed just offshore to measure the health and quantity of seagrass species as part of the Junior Scientist Fellows Program, a partnership between Harbor Branch and the Indian River Land Trust. The original 191-acre property, dubbed the Coastal Oaks Preserve, was purchased by the Land Trust in 2011.

The lagoon supports seven species of seagrass, more than any other place in North America, although declines have been marked. The students will take turns in the water, identifying which seagrass species exist there, along with the percentage of coverage, blade and shoot heights and overall canopy height.

Hanisak leads the Junior Scientist Fellows Program, begun in 2013 to secure research opportunities for exceptional high school students. “These team projects provide scientific information needed for conservation and management of the Coastal Oaks Preserve and the Indian River Lagoon,” he says. Their data will help determine where and how restoration occurs in areas such as the newest part of the Coastal Oaks Preserve, 29 additional acres reaching from the lagoon to U.S. 1 just north of the St. Lucie County line, purchased by IRLT in 2016.