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Fishing for Secrets of the Sea: Marine Science Institute solves mysteries of the underwater world

Dr. Peter Thomas draws blood from a fish
Dr. Peter Thomas draws blood from a fish to examine endocrine system health.
All he wants to talk about is sex. Attraction. Mating. Hormones. Reproduction.

Dr. Peter Thomas, a research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, is an expert on sex and the single fish. And his goal is rather less risqué than might be imagined. He hopes to interest others in the link between reproductive health and a safe, clean environment.

“Fish are the best sentinels, really, for environmental contamination,” Thomas said.

Through his research into the effects of toxic chemicals and pollution on the endocrine systems and reproductive processes of fishes, Thomas is trying to develop biomarkers that will indicate when levels of pollution are high enough to harm both marine life and humans.

“We show visitors to the Marine Science Institute some fish sperm, and they’re swimming around, healthy,” Thomas said. “Then we drop in some chemicals and all of a sudden the fish sperm stop swimming.”

In addition to providing alerts on dangerous levels of pollution and endocrine disruption, Thomas’s research also is helping develop successful methods of breeding fish in captivity and, therefore, putting more fish protein on the dinner table.

“Practically every single estuary in this country is polluted,” said Thomas. “The pollution problem is not bad enough to kill the fish, but it keeps them from reproducing. We’re increasingly relying on aquaculture to build up the populations of endangered fish and to spawn the fish for food purposes.”

Like other areas of research at the institute, Thomas’s work has a relevance to quality of life and a practical application that is readily understood and appreciated by most individuals—if they become educated. Realizing the importance of educating the populace, interacting with the community and highlighting the fascinating work being done at the institute, the facility started hosting an open house in 1996.

Science teacher Pam Stryker poses in a starfish costume
Pam Stryker, a Barton Creek Elementary School teacher, uses role-playing to teach kids about the sea.
The Marine Science Institute Open House, a very popular biennial event that will be held this year on Aug. 31, gives faculty and staff at the institute what educators refer to as a teachable moment, an opportunity to entertain and enlighten the public. And perhaps the best part is that the hands-on entertainment often obscures the fact that one is being educated. No one appreciates this subtlety more than the many children who attend.

Pam Stryker, a Presidential Award-winning elementary science teacher at Barton Creek Elementary School in Austin, is participating in the open house for the third time. She has been a consultant for the teacher workshops at the institute for 15 years and is presenting a show called Sea Spot Swim at this year’s event.

As a means of teaching children about marine life and the adaptations that various sea creatures make to inhabit their environments, Stryker instigates a lively game of role-playing. As she tosses out facts about fishes, seahorses, crabs and squid, young participants, attired as one sea animal or another, act out the appropriate behavior.

“It’s fun to watch little boys being daddy seahorses,” Stryker said. “We hand them an apron to put on and fill it up with babies, then tell them to throw out the babies.”

Although Sea Spot Swim is billed as children’s entertainment, the production is suitable for adults as well.

“It’s totally a family activity,” Stryker said. “The adults enjoy and get into it every bit as much as the kids.”

Stryker’s enthusiasm even extends to sewing the costumes that the children wear and casting her husband in a starring role (the Big Evil Shark).

Hands-on activities, informative tours and lively shows at the open house are what turn phrases like “ecosystem,” “aquaculture” and “marine food webs” into something more than science journal verbiage.

Field excursions aboard three of the institute’s research vessels offer a prime opportunity for learning. During an excursion on the R/V KATY, participants get a close-up look at coastal plankton, fishes and crabs, and sort through a shrimp trawl. On occasion, bottle-nosed dolphins have been sighted during that cruise.

An excursion on the R/V KATY
During an excursion on the R/V KATY, visitors get a close-up look at coastal plankton, fishes and crabs.
On the R/V LONGHORN, participants can become acquainted with scientific equipment used at sea and types of oceanographic measurements that scientists collect. Cruising down the Lydia Ann Channel aboard the R/V SHEARWATER, visitors learn about the animals that live in tidal areas and how they are important in coastal food webs. If participants aren’t afraid of a little bit of mud and a lot of water, they may help the scientists in some of their collection activities.

Visitors can learn about aquaculture and the benefits of raising shrimp and fish indoors at a talk entitled “Fish: From the Hatchery to the Table” or take the grand tour of the Marine Science Institute, see a 12-foot-long whale jaw bone and discover what scientific research is in the works.

Dr. Lee Fuiman, senior research scientist at the institute, will be leading the grand tour this year. When asked what people like most about the tour, he, without missing a beat, said, “Well, the adults really go for the sounds of fish mating calls.”

For more information on the Marine Science Institute’s Open House, call Tony Amos, Chair of the Open House 2002 Committee, at 361-749-6720 or 361-749-6793; the Open House Hotline at 361-749-6842; or visit the Marine Science Institute Web site. Admission for the event is free.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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