By Jessica Creagan
VERO BEACH -- When you're a marine biologist living in Vero Beach, your work is all around you and middle school students got a taste of what a career in the field would be like last week during a summer camp presented by the Vero Beach Marine Laboratory.
Florida Institute of Technology, based in Melbourne, hosted two week-long sessions of aquaculture and conservation biology camp in June at its satellite laboratory in Vero Beach.
Eliza Bruce, an incoming sixth grader, said she learned about the aquaculture camp from a presentation made by the lab at her school.
"We have these clownfish and we're seeing if they survive better with a dry food or a live food," Eliza said.
Even though she's never cared for fish or other marine life before, Eliza has enjoyed learning about the care of fish and plans to take a couple of the clownfish to raise in a tank at home.
"We learned how to clean the tank and not suck up any little fish in the siphon. It's really interesting to learn how marine biology is actually very interesting!" she said.
Nancy Pham, marine biologist, researcher and site manager, said the clownfish has always been a popular fish for aquariums, but has seen even more popularity after the Disney film, "Finding Nemo."
The research facility is located behind Tracking Station beach and has a main building that includes a marine laboratory, classroom, conference room and offices. The facility is administered by Florida Tech and serves as a regional research facility available to university faculty, graduate students and on-university investigators.
Several aquaculture companies, such as Florida Organic Aquaculture, a shrimp farm in Fellsmere, and Pro Aquatix, a supplier and fish bred in aquaculture, have a research collaborative agreement with Florida Tech and are using the site to develop aquaculture technologies for marine food and ornamental species.
A lot of the same things the students were learning how to do in the laboratory, creating hypotheses, observing the fish, collecting data and making conclusions is what Ms. Pham does as a researcher, except she focuses on sea horses.
"We do have sea horses here in the Indian River Lagoon in the brackish water," Ms. Pham said.
"I study their body shape and mating behaviors in the laboratory and see if it's different than in the wild," she said.
Students learned about a variety of different things during their week of camp, including SCUBA diving, cast net fishing and fish farms, Ms. Pham said.
Trey Olmstead, also an incoming sixth grader, has grown up around the ocean and the lagoon but still found surprises during his camp experience.
"I learned that lionfish lay thousands of eggs in a few hours. Lionfish are in our lagoon and ocean and are an invasive species," Trey said.
"One of the ways that people are trying to stop the overpopulation is to fish and eat them. This week we tried lionfish," he said.
Lionfish are believed to have been introduced into our local ecosystems by aquarium owners that no longer wanted them, said Bob Hickerson, a Vero Beach general contractor and founder of The Frapper, an organization that focuses on the lionfish overpopulation.
Lionfish have a beautiful striped coloring and are popular in aquariums, but they are also a little dangerous to handle as they have spines that can deliver a painful dose of venom.
Mr. Hickerson, an avid diver, has also designed a tool that is used in the capture of lionfish, also called the frapper.
Once the spines are removed, however, the fish is very easy to cook and eat with no problem, as Mr. Hickerson demonstrated to the students.
"They taste like snapper or grouper, so you can eat these instead and help with the overpopulation," Mr. Hickerson said.
For more information about the Vero Beach Marine Lab, visit www.research.fit.edu/vmbl.