By Chris Fish
BREVARD -- Since the beginning of this year, more than 70 dolphins inhabiting the Indian River Lagoon have died.
"As someone who lives and works around the (lagoon), I have a personal responsibility, as we all do, to ensure that this resource is vibrant for years to come," said Robert Weaver, assistant professor of ocean engineering at Florida Institute of Technology. "The (lagoon) is an important natural resource and economic engine for the area. (It) can be brought back, but it will not happen without the community making this a priority."
Now, in effort to discover what is causing the deaths of the wildlife in the lagoon, FIT executive vice president and chief operating officer T. Dwayne McCay announced earlier this month the establishment of the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute.
The new institute is a collaboration of the university's scientists, engineers, coastal resource managers and educators, who will all work independently and with community organizations to improve and sustain the health of the lagoon.
Mr. Weaver will lead the institute, along with his colleagues Professor Gary Zarillo and Associate Professor Jon Shenker.
"The focus of the (institute) is on development and implementation of sustainable solutions to the issue facing the lagoon, based on input from researchers across disciplines," Mr. Weaver said. "We have researchers, who have been studying the (lagoon) for many years; their guidance in developing engineering solutions provides a unique resource from any other working group. This enables us to get priorities started in an efficient and timely manner."
More than 20 faculty members have agreed to participate in the institute and to bring their students into future projects.
The effort includes faculty from ocean engineering, oceanography, environmental science, meteorology, civil engineering, science education, marine biology, aquaculture and the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business.
With the current state of the lagoon, Mr. Weaver said the institute has grown quickly to find a solution.
"The (institute) grew quickly over the past couple of months," he said. "The 20-plus faculty members, who are participating, have been working on lagoon-focused issues for much longer, some more than 25 years. Concern and realization that action must be taken helped facilitate the rapid development of the collaborative, and outreach projects are already under way."
Research activities at the institute will focus on developing solutions for existing environmental issues.
These issues include: the chemical and biological impacts of muck sediments and muck removal; internal and external nutrient-loading into the lagoon from muck sediment, tributaries, groundwater, septic tanks and fertilizer; the decline of essential habitats for commercially and recreationally important fish; and shellfish populations and the restoration of those species.