Statement of Dr. Michael Heithaus Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences Before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation — Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee Hearing

June 13, 2013

Statement of

Dr. Michael Heithaus

Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

Florida International University


Aquarious Reef Base


Partnerships in Ocean Observations


Before the
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation — Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard
Subcommittee Hearing


June 11, 2013



Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on behalf of Florida International University and our efforts to build partnerships to ensure that NOAA’s Aquarius Reef Base continues to address national and global priorities for marine exploration, research, natural resource management and STEM education.  The Aquarius facility is a key resource for developing tools to conserve marine resources and to support the communities that depend upon them, as well as for inspiring millions of Americans to take leadership in science and the environment.        


Florida International University, a Carnegie community engaged university, is a young and rapidly expanding public research institution. FIU has 50,000 students and is the largest Hispanic Serving Institution in the nation and among the ten largest universities nationwide. FIU is internationally known for its work in marine biology and coastal marine sciences.  FIU is a significant research partner with NOAA: NOAA’s national Hurricane Center is located on the FIU campus and FIU is a member of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS).  Recently, FIU took over operations and maintenance of NOAA’s Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only underwater marine laboratory and habitat available for use to support ocean exploration, research and STEM education.


In addition to graduate and undergraduate education, FIU is deeply engaged with K-12 and community education and outreach. Its dedication to improving K-12 education is highlighted by its newly formed STEM Transformation Institute and environmental education programs.



National Needs for Ocean Science and Education


Coastal marine habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves support the highest marine biodiversity in the world. More than 500 million people worldwide depend upon them for food (fisheries), storm protection, jobs and recreation. Their resources and services are worth an estimated 375 billion dollars each year to the global economy, yet they cover less than one percent of the Earth's surface. There is an urgent need to develop scientifically based tools for conserving these habitats and where feasible restoring the ecosystem services they millions of people around the world. While the Deepwater Horizon Incident highlighted the interconnectedness and susceptibility of marine ecosystems to human activities, global threats including climate change and ocean acidification have the potential to cause even more wide-spread and profound damage.  Coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems that provide huge economic benefits are particularly susceptible to climate change and other human caused stresses.  The next decade will be pivotal in whether society can successfully chart a path to a sustainable ocean future with thriving ecosystems and coastal human communities.


Overcoming the threats facing ocean ecosystems while ensuring that human needs for ocean resources are met requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves coastal ocean observing systems to monitor ecosystems, in-ocean experiments to understand the nature of threats and to develop solutions, development on new technologies for ocean observing and underwater industrial activities, high-value public outreach to communicate the importance of ocean ecosystems and solutions to threats to their health, and K-12 education programs and teacher development to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals and marine scientists.


How do we move forward to ensure that we, as a country, are able to accomplish this approach?  The answer lies in diverse partnerships, innovative technology, and human exploration and imagination.



Aquarius Reef Base


The Aquarius is the only operating undersea laboratory, 43 feet long by 9 feet in diameter that houses six aquanauts on the ocean floor 60 feet below the surface for 10-31 days at a time.  The habitat, the world’s only operational marine habitat dedicated to science and education, is a national treasure owned by NOAA. It has been sited in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo for 20 years and has proven to be instrumental in the advancement of oceanic research, engaging America’s future leaders through ocean-inspired learning, and serving as a catalyst for development of the next generation of marine and extra planetary explorers and exploration technologies.  Research at Aquarius has directly guided the stewardship of not just the Florida Keys National marine Sanctuary, but other coral reef ecosystems both in the US and worldwide.


An ocean observatory

Aquarius provides an ideal platform for long-term monitoring of coastal oceans and coral reefs.  It will serve as a permanent station, providing real-time and long-term data on the marine environment, which will serve as an early-warning system for impacts to ocean ecosystems both locally and globally. Because it can provide stable power, has a scalable IT infrastructure that facilitates innovative sensor deployment, utilizes the latest industry communication technology that offers a reliable means to transmit data and video, and is the only manned ocean observing platform that allows for data ground-truthing and sensor design and testing   Aquarius will become a world-class ocean observation platform that will facilitate monitoring and experimentation on, among other issues, the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs, seagrass meadows and a diverse array of ocean organisms. The position of Aquarius makes it particularly well-suited for studies of ocean acidification because it sits between seagrass meadows, which remove CO2 that causes acidification, and the coral reefs and open ocean that will be most impacted. The data generated by Aquarius will be critical for guiding policy and conservation management to preserve these critical ecosystems and potentially mitigate acidification worldwide.  


Finally, Aquarius Reef Base is, quite simply, the best platform for observing the condition of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The National Marine Sanctuaries Act was intended to identify, designate, and comprehensively manage marine areas of national significance. National marine sanctuaries are established for the public's long-term benefit, use, and enjoyment. As home to the largest continental coral reef ecosystem in the US, upon which the economy of south Florida is based, the FKNMS was designated. Sanctuary status is designed, among other things, to:


  • Enhance resource protection through comprehensive and coordinated conservation and ecosystem management that complements existing regulatory authorities.
  • Support, promote, and coordinate scientific research on, and monitoring of, the marine resources of the Florida Keys to improve management decision-making
  • Enhance public awareness, understanding, and the wise use of the marine environment through public interpretive, educational, and recreational programs.


Aquarius is superbly enabled to facilitate all of these goals of the FKNMS – with a special emphasis on the unique interpretive and educational programs it allows. A manned presence on the sea floor – and the ability of citizens to share in that experience through traditional media outlets as well as live over the internet, ignites the imaginations of future scientists and educators like nothing else!


Fostering innovation

Because of its well-studied and strategic location, highly-trained and competent staff, land-based and boat-based support infrastructure, stable power supply and climate-controlled conditions, Aquarius provides the ideal location for the deployment, development and testing of new technologies.  This is especially true for work that requires a human presence, since inventors, engineers and technicians can have their hands on their technology 24 hours a day for as long as a month during critical R&D stages. And, these same capabilities make Aquarius the ideal place to compare competing technologies in a test-bed environment.


STEM education: inspiring the next generation

Because of its ability to capture the imagination of an entire country and world through the eyes of people living under the sea, Aquarius can play an important role in ensuring American competitiveness for generations to come.  Equipped with the ability to send live video from the habitat and surrounding waters to schools, universities, aquariums, and museums around the country, Aquarius can reach millions of students and citizens every year while actual scientific and training missions are underway.  They can watch science while it is happening and experience it through the eyes of scientists, students, and teachers living and working underwater!  They can even interact with the aquanauts! Watching people living and exploring the ocean captivates and inspires people, especially young students, in ways that remote sensing cannot. The personal connection to ocean exploration, coupled with high-quality curriculum, will inspire a generation of students and motivate understanding, achievement and career choices.



Funding Aquarius: a model of Public-Private Partnerships


Florida International University took over operation of Aquarius Reef Base in 2013 and has undertaken a transformation of its business model. Aquarius is transitioning to being supported by a blend of partnerships with private industry, user fees, private philanthropic donations, and state and federal research and education grants.  This new business model will ensure that Aquarius will be available and providing significant benefits to American taxpayers for years to come while lessening the tax dollars invested in its continuation.  FIU is partnering with the Aquarius Foundation, a not for profit dedicated to the support of the Aquarius project.


There has been a public outpouring of support for Aquarius when NOAA signaled a desire to close the lab.  One of the first groups to step in in to support was the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN).  Stephen Frink, of DAN, agreed to serve on the board of the Aquarius Foundation - which formed to save Aquarius. DAN has accepted donations for Aquarius and sponsored an end-of mission fundraising event after a mission led by Dr. Sylvia Earle, who also sits on the board of Aquarius Foundation.


Since FIU took over the operation of Aquarius Reef Base, we have been approached by companies interested in testing equipment for the oceanographic, maritime industry, oils and gas exploration, extraction and delivery, and aerospace applications.  We have also had contact with private aerospace companies – as well as NASA – since Aquarius provides the only facility of its kind for training astronauts in an extreme, high-stakes, environment. We also have received considerable interest from media companies and are developing partnerships with the local dive operators in the Florida Keys to enhance their business while providing funding for Aquarius.


Recognizing its incredible value for marine sciences and education, we have begun to build important partnerships with groups and individuals interested in helping provide financial support for FIU and Aquarius.  One individual has pledged $1.25 million, and assistance raising further funds, pending a long-term agreement with NOAA on the future of the base.  We have been partnering with to assist with the optimization of this crowd funding platform, which will feature Aquarius’s Teacher-Under-the Sea program for the platform’s launch in July 2013.  Also, FIU and Guy Harvey Foundation are working on a partnership to enhance marine education for K-12 students.


A need for continued federal support

Key, however, to realizing the potential of the growing public private partnerships for operating Aquarius is continued support from the Federal Government. The investment need not be considerable.  FIU and its private partners needs NOAA to agree to a three-year plan that will transition the base from its previous position of complete federal support to the new mix of industry, governmental and philanthropic support. This three-year plan must deal with issues remaining about the liability for operation and eventual decommissioning of the facility.