Tequesta Field Lab Spotlight

  • The Tequesta Manatee Research team safely releases a rehabilitated manatee.

  • Marine Fish Biology staff working up a spotted seatrout.

  • An old photo of the front office of yesteryear, when it was a Welcome Center for motorists.

  • A photo from the 90’s when the field lab was under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

  • How the Tequesta Field Lab looks today.

  • A snail kite soars over the marshes.

The story of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Tequesta Field Lab begins with a glass of complimentary orange juice. In 1962, Palm Beach County built a welcome center on the side of U.S. highway 1, as a way to introduce vacationers to the area, complete with complimentary cups of fresh Florida orange juice. Not long after the welcome center was opened, the national Interstate system began to open, which caused a huge decrease in the amount of traffic traveling down U.S. 1. In the early 70’s the decision was made to repurpose the property, and the Florida Marine Patrol moved in, which was then under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Natural Resources. The Florida Marine Patrol remained in this building until when it officially became a research facility, which remains to this day. The current FWRI Tequesta Field Lab has between 25-27 employees, and concerns itself with four main areas of research: manatees, sea turtles, habitat and species, and marine fisheries.  

Tequesta’s manatee group conducts rescues of manatees that have become stranded, as well as conducting necropsies on manatees which unfortunately are found deceased. The manatee group notes conditions of rescued and deceased manatees that inform management efforts, for instance, if boat strikes are occurring more frequently than usual in a particular area, law enforcement can be sent to that area or outreach efforts can be focused there. Population estimates are another important function the Tequesta manatee team takes part in, which sometimes involves aerial count surveys, and is important for the conservation of this beloved species.   

The sea turtle group researches and responds to strandings, tracks nesting, and conducts outreach to citizens and municipalities about things like sea-turtle friendly lighting (sea turtle hatchings can become disoriented by bright lights, like street lights). Permitting and conducting necropsies are some of the other duties the sea turtle group conducts. FWC requires permits for conducting sea turtle nesting surveys, to conduct research projects, or to temporarily hold captive turtles, such as the rehabilitation of injured turtles. 

FWC’s Habitat and Species group conducts aquatic habitat conservation, like marine debris removal, and coastal habitat restoration, which includes assisting homeowners and municipalities implement living shorelines, which uses native vegetation and other green techniques to stabilize the shoreline and create habitat for wildlife and fish. Habitat and Species also conducts outreach events to local communities on how to better coexist with the natural environment.  

The Tequesta Habitat and Species group also conducts snail kite research. The Florida snail kite is endangered and endemic to Florida, soaring above the wide-open marches of central Florida, it preys upon apple snails with its distinctive curved beak. The snail kite coordinator travels around the state monitoring snail kite nesting and collecting population metrics, and works with habitat managers to support snail kite recovery.  

The final group at Tequesta is Marine Fisheries Research, which studies the ecology of marine fish species in the area, monitoring their age and growth characteristics, which helps informs managers as to what fishing regulations should be set at, to insure healthy populations exist into the future. FWRI’s Fisheries Dependent Monitoring program gathers data for the Marine Fisheries Research section by conducting dockside surveys of anglers and charter boats as they return with their catch. Often, the team will extract otoliths (ear-bones) from fish to work up in the lab later. Otoliths are valuable to researchers as they provide an accurate record of the age of a fish, growth rings are counted in a similar way that is done on tree rings.  

Fisheries Independent Monitoring (FIM) gathers data for fisheries research by, as their name suggests, going out and gathering data independent of commercial and recreational angler dockside and mail surveys. FIM uses seine nets to randomly sample areas of the coastline and estuaries, collecting fish in the nets, then working them up on a boat or shore. Biologists note the species, amount, length, and other characteristics of the fish, before taking readings of the salinity and water temperature. Data like this is crucial to forming accurate models of the species’ ecology, population, and overall health.  

Tequesta Field Lab is involved in numerous long-term projects on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. The Marine Fisheries group has developed an array approximately 80 miles long, consisting of 68 receiver stations, mostly offshore, to track tagged fish. There are also six temperature loggers, which help to correlate fish movement, and to detect oceanic events, such as upwellings. Sometimes these arrays are deployed for project specific reasons, like an array offshore of St. Augustine implemented to study cobia movements. These arrays are part of a larger network, spanning up the Atlantic Coast, called the Florida Atlantic Coast Telemetry (FACT) Network. Researchers and biologists realized that if they collaborated, they could gather data on their tagged fish from researchers in other states, since the same equipment is used, and so the FACT Network was born. Cobia are highly migratory and can travel many hundreds of miles up and down the coast, so a system like this is of great use to scientists and biologists. Established in 2007, there are currently over 40 partner organization in FACT, with over 900 receiver stations, and 83 species tracked.    

Another regional collaboration that Tequesta Field Lab takes part in is the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative, which began in 2011. The Tequesta team randomly surveys locations of natural reef on the north end of the Florida Reef Tract, conducting fish counts and benthic surveys, which are then plugged into a large database. With corals and other species at risk of climate change and coral disease, like Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, a large dataset is important in making accurate conservation decisions, for FWRI researchers and researchers around the world. 

What began as a humble welcome center on the side of the highway would eventually become FWRI’s Tequesta Field Lab, which conducts a very diverse body of research for a relatively small crew. The research and field work carried out by Tequesta Field Lab helps create a sustainable and healthy fishery and ecosystem that will be enjoyed for future generations.