Offshore Optics: Taking a Closer Look at Offshore Aquaculture

Originally published on Written by Laura Tiu, Ph.D., UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant.

Project partners: Dr. Kevan Main, Mote Marine Laboratory; Hayley Lemoine, Florida Sea Grant HARVEST intern; Mr. Evan Barniskis, Mote Marine Aquarium; and Dennis Peters, Gulfstream Aquaculture

Name something that is 30 feet long and 9 feet high and teaches us something about the ocean. The mind drums up visions of Orcas and giant squid, but these are the dimensions of the colossal new Offshore Aquaculture exhibit at the Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. The exhibit is a collaboration between Mote(link is external)Florida Sea Grant(link is external), and Gulfstream Aquaculture and helps answer the big question, “How can we feed the world?’

Aquaculture is a growing industry in Florida, and one of the best opportunities for expanding seafood production is in offshore (or open-ocean) marine aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. One company, Ocean Era(link is external), has taken the lead and proposed to permit and deploy a demonstration aquaculture rearing pod 45 miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida to demonstrate the technology and gather additional data on this production method. Gaining community acceptance, sometimes called social license, and improving aquaculture literacy about the complexities of sustainable offshore aquaculture allows the community to better understand proposed offshore aquaculture operations and provides access to critical information to effectively assess the contributions of aquaculture to their economy. 

One way to provide information to the public is via interactive displays in informal educational spaces such as aquariums and science centers. The Mote Aquarium, one of Sarasota’s highest-rated attractions, is a place where locals and visitors expand their knowledge and awareness of multiple issues affecting their coastal community, making it an ideal location for an offshore aquaculture exhibit. Fortunately, it is also the closest marine educational facility to the upcoming deployment of Ocean Era’s aquaculture demonstration project!

Through the NOAA-NAAEE Collaborative Aquaculture Literacy mini-grants program, NAAEE supports partnerships sharing the mutual aquaculture literacy goals of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Education(link is external), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and National Sea Grant Office. These mini-grants provide informal learning institutions (e.g., aquariums), aquaculture industry (e.g., shellfish, finfish, seaweed farmers), and NOAA partners with support for the co-development of innovative educational experiences that explore aquaculture topics and support the engagement and advancement of public aquaculture literacy.

Assembling a team of aquarium design specialists, academics, scientists, and industry representatives was key to unlocking an innovative and effective offshore aquaculture display at the Aquarium. The offshore aquaculture exhibit was designed to increase viewers’ knowledge of offshore aquaculture and provide them with the knowledge and skills to understand the complexities of this new industry in their community. 

The exhibit opened in December 2021 and about 106,000 guests have come through the aquarium since then. There are many perspectives regarding aquaculture but, so far, the reception has been positive, with none of the potentially negative feedback we were concerned about. This was a pleasant surprise that could be due to the very friendly and informal way the exhibit was framed. The interactive trivia portion of the display is most popular with middle schoolers and high schoolers, followed by adults. Most people answer about three questions before moving on. 

Volunteers and interns are currently collecting more data on guest interactions to be shared later and other tactile portions of the exhibit will be added. Aquarium volunteers have commented on how bright and cheerful the exhibit is and have mentioned that it has a nice amount of content—enough to tell the full story, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. 

This unique partnership encompassing academia, industry, and public education was formed to translate offshore aquaculture information to improve aquaculture literacy and confidence amongst exhibit viewers. The exhibit is an example of building partnerships that bring research to life. 

The entire team is thankful for the eeBLUE funding from NAAEE that enabled this team to develop this important exhibit.