Tag Archives: FAU

The Thousands of Sponge Specimens of Harbor Branch and the Hope for a Cure, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and Nancy Higgs stand during a tour at Harbor Branch's sponge storage area.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, and Nancy Higgs (former Brevard county commissioner) during a tour to Harbor Branch’s “sponge storage area for cancer research.” Nancy named the area, containing over 3500 specimens, “Spongeville.” Both women serve on the HBOIF board. (Photo by Dr Sheri Pomponi, 11-13-14.)

After a recent tour at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, along the Indian River Lagoon, in Ft Pierce, I will never look at my kitchen sponge the same again…..

Sponges in my kitchen....
Sponges in my kitchen….

It has been a great pleasure to serve on the FAU, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Foundation Board for just over a year, and at a recent meeting we were able to tour the famous “sponge storage vaults for cancer reasearch” deep within the inner chambers of the university. I had heard about these sponges for decades but had never seen the 3500 specimens  that are shared with visiting scientists from all over the world, “face to face.” World scientists visit HBOI because the collection is unique in the world.

Today, I ‘d like to share just a little about what I saw and learned.

Collection HBOI
Collection HBOI

This collection of over 3500 sponges and other deep-sea organisms was collected over a period of 20 years with the help of Harbor Branch’s deep SEA-LINK submersibles for which HBOI is famous (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/technology/subs/sealink/sealink.html).

From areas as remote as 3000 feet deep in our world oceans come these specimens! And some may just may hold the cure for certain cancers, malaria, tuberculosis neurodegenerative disease, bone density improvement, and inflammation….

One of Harbor Branch's famous submersibles now on display.
One of Harbor Branch’s famous submersibles now on display.

Walking through the many rooms/cooled vaults of the collection was mind-boggling; our guide was Dr Sheri Pomponi who had collected many of the specimens herself. (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/mbbr/).

Other scientists who assisted us on our tour were Dr Amy Wright, Dr. Peter McCarthy, and Dr Esther Guzmán. The entire presentation was way over my head, but basically I learned  that sponges and other deep-sea life do not have such easy lives and participate in a type “chemical warfare” down there vying for survival in a very tough environment.

For instance, a sponge or sea fan like creature may produce chemicals that remarkably allow them to adhere to hard corals, “like bone.” Many can also produce other chemicals, for instance  to “taste bad” to predators so they are not eaten…. Amazingly, the chemicals these marine creatures produce to survive can be applied to human survival.

Dr Sheri Pomponi collected many of the specimens across our world's oceans.
Dr Sheri Pomponi collected many of the specimens across our world’s oceans for HBOI.
HBOI collecton
HBOI collection bottles.
HBOI collection
HBOI collection all labeled  by date, contents  and location.

According to Harbor Branch:

 “Natural products are inherently bioactive, and most researchers feel that the structures have evolved over time to provide exquisite biological activities. Humans and organisms such as sponges, soft corals and bacteria share similar biochemistry and compounds that might have one use in sponges might have totally different use in humans. Researchers at Harbor Branch can take advantage of the similarity in biochemistry to develop medicines useful in the treatment of human diseases.”

While at the tour, Dr Guzman was actually  showing through computer technology how certain chemical compounds from sponges were killing (attacking) cancer cells. “Of course the key is not killing too many other “good” cells at the same time,” she said.

This was like an “Ah-Ha” moment for me. “So some sponge cells kill other cells…even human cells? Like trying to adhere to the coral? Hmmm? The applications? Similar biochemistry? A process better than chemotherapy?”  I wondered. Fascinating.

Anyway, the whole thing, taking place right here along the Indian River Lagoon, was incredible and actually a lot of fun because my friend Nancy Higgs who sits on the board with me kept joking over and over again:

“Jacqui, It’s Spongeville! You can write a blog! Spongeville! She and I laughed as we walked deep into the vault, but then suddenly we were very quiet. ”

Wow, maybe the cure for cancer is right in here….” we looked at each other in amazement.

Like I said, I will never be able to look at my kitchen sponge the same again…

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FAU/Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/)

The Estuary-Ocean People-Government Relationship, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Only a thin ribbon of land separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Indian River Lagoon.... (Photo Jacqui ThurlowLippisch and Ed Lippisch 2014.)
Only a thin ribbon of land separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Indian River Lagoon…. (Photo Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and Ed Lippisch, 2014.)

As we all know, estuaries are the nurseries of our oceans. Sometimes we think of rivers and oceans as separate, but they are connected and the destruction brought upon one affects the other.

Looking above at this photograph of Hutchinson Island near the House of Refuge one can see how close the Indian River Lagoon estuary and the Atlantic Ocean really are. Not only that, when polluted water flows out of the St Lucie Inlet from the St Lucie River estuary, it covers and negatively affects our “protected” near shore reefs and the tremendous variety of life there.

A photo from Martin County shows polluted runoff flowing over nearshore reefs along Hutchinson Island, 2011.
A photo from Martin County shows polluted runoff flowing over nearshore reefs along Jupiter island south of Hutchinson Island and the St Lucie Inlet, 2011.

According to the Consortium  for Ocean Leadership (http://oceanleadership.orgof which locally FAU/Harbor Branch is a member:

“Ocean ecosystems have been subjected to decades of intense fishing, urban and agricultural runoff, and the loss and degradation of estuaries and wetlands. Furthermore, changes in ocean temperatures, salinity, currents and acidity are having significant impacts on marine living resources. The incidence of hypoxia, as in the Gulf of Mexico (http://www.ncddc.noaa.gov/hypoxia/(dead zones) has increased almost 30 fold in the United States since 1960 with more than 300 systems recently experiencing hypoxia.” 

As we all know, the entire St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon is often a “dead zone,” due to toxic algae blooms caused by too much polluted fresh water runoff from canals carrying nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants from agricultural canals along the lagoon, and Lake Okeechobee .

The recommendation of the Consortium is as follows:

“…support  conservation programs and services to reduce runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment from agricultural activities which is causing harmful algae blooms and dead zones.”

Think about this for a minute.

The four agricultural canals we have here in Martin and St Lucie Counties: C-44, C-23, C-24, and C-25 have no filtering system. When it rains, the water falling on thousands and thousands of acres of agricultural as well as urban lands picks up fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, oil, cow, horse, and pet waste, leaky septic tank effluent, and what ever else is out there; this water then runs into the canals that in turn are released directly  into our waterways. When Lake Okeechobee is dumped it too has no filtering process, so not only do we get our pollution but we get “Orlando’s” as well as the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake O. forces the lake water to flow east and west rather than south as nature intended…. Is it any wonder why we are a toxic mess?

Canal and basin map SLR/IRL. (Public)
Canal and basin map SLR/IRL. (Public)

It must be noted that Martin County, the state, and federal government for years have been working on the IRL South Project that is part of CERP. (http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/projects/proj_07_irl_south.aspx) This project would help hold, filter, and clean polluted water for canals C-23, C-24, and C-25 before it enters the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. These projects are so expensive and political they are a “slow moving slug,”but they are moving.

The C-44 STA/Reservoir (https://my.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/pg_grp_sfwmd_wrac/portlet_subtab_wrac_archive_reportsdocs/tab772049/wrac_090606_c44_ray.pdf) is yet another tremendous project that miraculously got a second push to get underway, due to the pressures of last year’s “Lost Summer,” through the help of local, state, and federal politicians and agencies, but that project needs continual push for congressional funding to accomplish its goals too.

Clean water does not come easy. The public must push and push. There is fierce competition.

Yes, we the public must learn more about these projects and how to help get these projects funded, along with our fight for a flow way south of Lake Okeechobee.

The government will only move forward with these projects if they know the public is expecting it and helping with it. With Amendment 1’s passage the possibility is even more of a reality, but it is no guarantee. We must advocate.

The line between the estuary and the oceans is very thin, as is the line between the people and their government. Get involved! The river and the ocean both need you!

 

 

The Once Legal Capture of Dolphins for Marine Parks From the Indian River Lagoon

Discovery Cove, with "Natasha" 2008.
Discovery Cove, with “Natasha” 2008.

If you have ever visited a marine park in the United States, chances are you have seen a dolphin, or its offspring perform, that once lived in the Indian River Lagoon. A total of 68 dolphins were captured and permanently removed from the lagoon between 1973 and 1988 for captive display at mostly US marine parks.

I myself went to Discovery Cove in 2008 with my husband Ed, and witnessed a freak accident  when Natasha, “our” assigned dolphin, was killed during a stunt when she slammed into another dolphin while preforming back flips in the confined area.  What was to be a wonderful day, turned into a disturbing experience and it caused me to reevaluate and think more deeply about capturing and holding bottle-nosed dolphins and other marine mammals in captivity. In 2008, I had just become a commissioner for the Town of Sewall’s Point and started my journey, some may call it, my obsession,  with the health of the Indian River Lagoon. This horrible experience at Discovery Cove has fed my obsession.

In 2010-11, I served as mayor of Sewall’s Point, and at this time, through my interactions with the Treasure Coast Council of Local Governments, I became a volunteer in the Marine Mammal Department for FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft Pierce, through the help of Steven McCulloch. I learned a lot during this time, and Steven taught me about the history of dolphins in the IRL because he had lived it.

He explained to me that things started to look better for dolphins in the late 1980s as prior to this time they were being captured for marine parks.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was the beginning of change and awareness for dolphins.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) was the first act of the United States Congress to call specifically for an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. MMPA prohibits the taking of marine mammals, and enacts a moratorium on the import, export, and sale of any marine mammal, along with any marine mammal part or product within the United States. The Act defines “take” as “the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal; or, the attempt at such.”

In November 1989, a temporary ban on the practice of removing dolphins by permit from the IRL and other Florida waters was passed federally. The last dolphin to be captured and removed from the Indian River Lagoon was in 1988.

Dolphins of course are mammals and they like humans, have very strong social ties. They live in pods, or groups and display site fidelity. Dolphin calves are raised by a group of females and will stay with the mother and nurse for up to four years. Generally, only males leave the original group and even so these dolphins have lifelong family relationships. These bonds are fierce and serve the animals in their survival.

Steve MuCulloch started and oversaw the Marine Mammal Department at Harbor Branch and is the most incredible person I know in this arena. No longer with the institute he helped build, he was responsible for overseeing the health assessments (HERA) that occurred  in the IRL and has provided tremendous scientific information with the help and permitting of NOAA and  Dr Gregory Bossert.  Steve always showed a passion and attachment to the animals that defied the norm. I was fascinated and ask him to tell me his story.

A sick dolphin is assessed by Dr Gregory Bossert at HBOI. (Photo Brian Cousins)
A sick dolphin is assessed by Dr Gregory Bossert at HBOI. (Photo Brian Cousins)

Eventually, he told me of his history with the dolphins of the IRL and explained that in the early days, he had helped with their capture for marine parks. He told a heart wrenching story of how this changed for him when once on a mission, the take included a calf and the mother swam frantically along side the boat jumping and whistling/speaking with her calf. The calf struggled and clicked and whistled back.

Steven Mcculloch who built the marine mammal department at Harbor Branch. (Photos Brian Cousins, HBOI 2012.)
Steven McCulloch who built the marine mammal department at Harbor Branch. (Photos Brian Cousins, HBOI 2012.)

Steve said a powerful feeling overcame him and he knew this was the last dolphin he would ever help remove from the lagoon; he would now make it his life to keep them safe and the families together.  He yelled out: “The calf is not going to make it! Release!” This was policy if it appeared a dolphin was over stressing, as they are known to die in stressful situations with humans. The others on the boat stood speechless as McCulloch released the fretting, but not “over stressing,” calf back into the water with its mother. McCulloch said the mother happily reunited with her calf and then lifted her head out of the water  looking straight at him as if to say “thank you!” Over time, Steve McCulloch became the charismatic local leader in marine mammal studies, research, fund raising and rehabilitation.

Things do change. Hearts change. Laws are passed for the good of the environment. Perceptions of yesteryear become archaic reminders of how far we as humans have come as a species.

Today, there are new threats due to poor water quality, excessive agricultural and urban runoff, emerging diseases, algae blooms, and an increasing number of boat hits, but at least the dolphins are free.

Life changing, good things have happened for the lagoon in the past and will be happening again. Please remember this and be inspired next time you see our protected friends, the  beautiful Indian River Lagoon bottle nosed dolphins.

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Bottlenosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncates) IRL Estuarine System Stock,  December 2009, pg. 467 documents # of dolphins documented by the state of Florida removed from the lagoon for marine parks: (http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/publications/tm/tm219/462_BODO_IRLES.pdf)

FAU/HBOI Marine Mammal Department: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/)

NOAA Marine Mammal Act 1972: (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/mmpa/)

Orlando Sentinel Article, 1992 IRL Dolphin Alliance: (http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1992-10-26/news/9210260130_1_dolphins-indian-river-marine-fisheries)