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Columbus Center:  Exploring Science of the Sea - 2002-10-08

Columbus Day in America is often celebrated with parades in the Italian American community and discount sales in stores. But in Baltimore, Maryland, the spirit of exploration symbolized by the Italian sailor, Christopher Columbus, is celebrated year-round at a marine biology research and education center named after him. The Columbus Center is located on the city's harbor waterfront and adjacent to the Little Italy neighborhood, now decorated with the country's red, white, and green-colored flags and banners.

Before visitors enter the basement research area of the Columbus Center, they must walk on a special black mat soaked with disinfectant. The clean, sprawling room is filled with 6,000-liter tanks containing fish and crustaceans swimming in filtered water. Linked to some of them are special breeding containers, as Rick Tysor, assistant director of the Center of Marine Biotechnology, shows a visitor a so-called "crab condo."

"Crabs are very cannibalistic, so we constantly have to go back and re-grade them," he explained. "When they're the same size, they don't eat each other."

Although pure scientific research is a major activity at the Columbus Center, Rick Tysor points ou that applied research is also a focus of the center using aquaculture to bring back depleted species in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.

"The goal is to see if we can actually replenish the stock in the bay," he said. "Blue crabs are such a way of life in the state of Maryland. We've been partnering with the Phillips Seafood Corporation, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Maryland Watermen's Association they kick-started this research for the blue crab. Now it has expanded to a federally-funded program and includes institutions from Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi as well."

The Chesapeake blue crab release program at the Columbus Center has been especially successful, as Mr. Tysor explains. "We have everything here at the crab condos, [where] we house small crabs together," he said. "We've had several releases this year: small crabs about three-quarter of an inch [18mm]. About 20,000 crabs that were hatched here were then released near the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, just south of Annapolis, [Maryland]."

The sophisticated environmental control facilities at the Columbus Center, whose research is administered by the University of Maryland, is also being used to breed more fish - sea bream, sturgeon, trout and striped bass, known to Marylanders as rockfish.

"We've modified the photo-periods how much light they get," he said. "So we can replicate their own [natural] environment. Or we can fool the fish into thinking it's now springtime, when it's really fall. We do that with the temperature, salinity and modifications to the seawater. We have freshwater fish as well."

From the world of gurgling water tanks and mechanized filtration systems in the basement, an entirely different world lies upstairs under the building's sunlit "sails," which create the Columbus Center's striking profile on the Baltimore skyline. There are several floors of laboratories filled with complex research equipment. And there are classrooms where, each year, more than 7,000 Baltimore-area students, perhaps Columbus Center scientists of tomorrow, come to learn about their state's sea creatures.

Education specialist Jeff Morgan oversees rows of excited students peering through expensive microscopes at some rather unappetizing sludge from the sea.

"What we're doing here is a grade three-five program elementary program," he explained. "It's designed for students to take a closer look at the Chesapeake Bay. They get to come in and see some of the organisms that live in the Chesapeake Bay. Some are things everyone's familiar with, such as oysters, blue crab, and rockfish. But they also see some unique things that live in the bay, such as sea anemones, seahorses, and things like that. What they're looking at now are microscopic growths. It gives them a chance to look at living stuff under the microscope."

Donna Gmurk, a third-grade teacher at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel school in Essex, Maryland, says there's nothing like first-hand research experience for her students.

"They can look at it in books and stuff, but now they're getting it through hands-on [activities]," she noted. "They went outside and brought the little disks up and got to capture the water and bring it here so they can look at everything under the microscopes."

Another Columbus Center teacher, Gina Hildt, says many students and teachers are surprised that their state has such a diverse collection of marine and coastal life.

"The animals we're showing, a lot of [students] haven't seen before and don't know they actually live in Maryland and the watershed the frogs, the salamanders they would not normally see," she pointed out.

At the Columbus Center's labs, some of the students are accompanied by their parents, who are just as interested in what's seen under microscope lenses - such as young John Wilmoth and his mother.

"There's a pipe and you put this clear disk on and put it into the water. Then you pull it out and it has all this brown stuff on it worms, clams and mussels," John said.

"We live on the bay [coast]. He sees things growing on the pilings, and all that," added his mother. "To come [here] and have a hands-on [lab] and see it under the microscope gives us a new appreciation."

The Center for Marine Biotechnology's education programs celebrate Christopher Columbus' spirit of exploration year-round.