In our third episode, we sit down to discuss the Brevard Zoo’s new Aquarium Project. In September of 2021, the Canaveral Port Authority approved the construction of a new, 14-acre aquarium in conjunction with the Brevard Zoo. This will be a major educational resource for students, citizens, and scientists alike.
The Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program is joined by Keith Winsten, Executive Director of Brevard Zoo and champion of the Aquarium Project to explore how this new facility will teach and inspire an environmental ethic in the lagoon community.
To learn more about the Aquarium Project, visit Our Legacy today.
To learn more about the IRL Council and our lagoon home, visit OneLagoon.org.
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[Audio transcription via YouTube]
- KJ Ayres, GIS Scientist at IRLNEP
- Keith Winston, Executive Director of Brevard Zoo
Duane De Freese: Hi. I’m Duane De Freese, executive director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Welcome to our One Lagoon One Voice Podcast.
Each week myself or one of my staff members will host leaders in the community, scientists along the lagoon, people who know a lot about the system, to talk about some of the problems and most importantly some of the solutions to solve the Indian River Lagoon’s health and make sure it’s great for future generations.
If you enjoy hearing us talk about the lagoon, like and subscribe to this podcast. And be sure to follow us at One Lagoon on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. So let’s get the show started and let’s talk a little lagoon.
KJ Ayres: Hello everybody. Welcome to One Lagoon, One Voice. My name is KJ Ayres and I’m the GIS scientist for the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program and also today’s podcast host.
Today I’m excited to talk about a project that’s been getting a lot of buzz within the Indian River Lagoon community—the Brevard Aquarium Project, which has been a long time passion for our friends at Brevard Zoo.
In September of 2021 the 14-acre aquarium received approval from Canaveral Port Authority. The new facility promises to not just be an exciting new attraction but also a generator of advocacy for Florida’s natural resources including the Indian River Lagoon. So, here to tell us the full story on this exciting new addition to the lagoon community is Keith Winston, Executive Director of Brevard Zoo.
Keith, welcome to the show.
Keith Winston: Thanks! Thanks so much for having me.
KJ Ayres: I know everybody at the IRLNEP is super excited about the Brevard Aquarium Project. Keith, can you give our listeners a little bit more of an overview of the project?
Keith Winston: Sure. So the project itself is a long time coming. For those of you who know the zoo has been really doing marine conservation for quite a long time. We started sort of serendipitously when we got engaged helping the University of Central Florida with their oyster map project and we found we were really excellent at getting the community engaged in that. We sort of ended up building a portfolio of marine projects doing oyster restoration, clams, mangroves, now doing seagrass, and so that was always a sort of a calling for us.
What ended up happening many years ago was I ended up seeing that there was an opportunity to use our model and the zoo as a not-for-profit. We’re completely independent. We have to earn our own way. Our model for an aquarium that would actually generate significant income for the Indian Lagoon restoration efforts, and so as you mentioned previously we actually ended up signing an agreement with Port Canaveral in the fall of 2021 for an incredible 14-acre site right on the lagoon.
And now we’re sort of in the middle of both fundraising and completing the design. What we think will be a world-class facility. And we’ll be probably the first aquarium that was really called to life to solve an environmental problem.
KJ Ayres: That’s super awesome. Can you tell us a little bit more about the creation of the aquarium project, like what you’re hoping to accomplish for it being an educational resource and an attraction within the community?
Keith Winston: Well, a couple things. So we’re balancing a couple things that aquariums can do well. One of the first things is obviously they’re high attraction areas, so we’ll see over half a million people a year. And the themes of the aquarium obviously reflect things that are important to us, you know, ocean plastics and how to handle those things, sustainable fisheries. But closer to home, how to live lightly on the lagoon and how to actually be an environmental warrior for waterways—if that’s something you do. So there’s an educational component for it.
As I mentioned, it actually will be an income generator not just for our own programs but we’ve committed at least a dollar of every paid admission to go actually to the National Estuary Program so that’ll be a minimum of half a million dollars a year which I think will make us one of the largest funders.
KJ Ayres: I’m super excited about all the potential funding that’s going to be coming into the IRLNEP. It was always hard when I was younger to actually visit an aquarium. The closest one was on the west coast of Florida or up in Atlanta, so having one in the community is going to make a big difference. What’s the facility going to do for the next generations?
Keith Winston: There’s a coastal conservation hub, which is part of this, which is a facility that not only trains the next generation of stewards but actually has the kinds of meeting space that we can do collaborative work. University professors who are visiting can work with their students and we can hold meetings in a really well facilitated environment. Finally it directly connects quality of life in this community. It gives people another reason to visit as tourists and treat things with respect, but for locals to take pride in sort of what makes us unique.
So all of those outcomes, and they’re all based on the outcome that you know if we build it they will come, and we’ll have the dollars needed to do all of these other programs.
KJ Ayres: So that actually ties in very nicely with our next question. Can you tell us how the Brevard Aquarium Project is going to specifically impact Brevard County and Brevard County residents?
Keith Winston: We don’t want it to specifically impact Brevard County. It’s a much bigger project than that. We actually think although the Brevard Zoo was really started primarily by Brevard citizens, this is a regional project. So our fundraising and engagement areas spread from Volusia to the North, to Orange to the West, to River County in the South—with Brevard right in the middle. We want everybody to embrace that.
I think we see how we’re doing if the lagoon’s doing well it is a lighthouse on the lagoon, and if it’s not doing so well it is a firehouse on the lagoon. Because if you look back historically at lagoon restoration efforts, what you saw is in the ‘80s there were concerted efforts to stop the sort of direct dump of sewage effluent, which was very successful. It stopped it, and then I think everyone thought the battle was won and we can go back into our houses, you know, and here we are 30, 40 years later dealing with a whole set of other problems, right? Just the non-point problems that come from so many people living around a giant bathtub.
So on the big scale of things it continues to shine a light on the lagoon, so we don’t forget what the lagoon needs as well as our beaches, as well as the St John’s river, and the immediate. As a firehouse it helps people get together to actually take actions and take solutions.
You know, the zoo is…we’re officially the East Coast Zoological Society of Florida. The zoo is obviously our first campus, but this will be another campus, and between the two institutions we have a lot of reach and a lot of impact and we step up for things.
So in 2016 we played a big role in getting our Save Our Indian River Lagoon plan passed and funded in Brevard. We would be happy to help play that role in other places up and down the coast as needed, as called upon. Right now, like a number of places, we are ramping up working with the National Estuary Program as part of this collaborative that really hopes to crack the case on seagrass. The aquarium gives us lots of tools to help with that and on manatees, the two problems are so closely interrelated. So it just powers us up and gives us the infrastructure we need to do many of these things.
KJ Ayres: Can we touch a little bit more on how specifically the Brevard Aquarium Project is getting involved with manatees and seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon?
Keith Winston: So we’re doing a couple things. First, in terms of seagrasses we’re actually looking at a couple of places to do seagrass nurseries, and then a whole variety of sites as we start to learn what works in terms of our planning. You know, growing seagrass isn’t easy—but planting it and having it survive, all the things that like to eat it is particularly challenging.
So we have initially proposed 24 different sites to do some small pilot projects but interestingly enough there’s two things [about] the aquarium site we’re really excited about. There’s a really large outdoor sort of growing space that will become part of our life support system for other animals. We’ll be growing seagrass there so people actually see what that looks like before the sea gets transplanted, and we’re seeing some nice seagrass growth right outside of the aquarium, that part of the Banana River, and so we know the water quality can sustain it for at least two species. I think it’s Halodule… oh and the one that’s flowering right now… So Ruppia and Halodule.
We will hopefully make a large sort of nursery in the wild there so people can come and see the amount of effort and time it takes, but that we can restore the seagrass. And as you know there’s four other organizations working right now with the NEP, and a lot more coming on soon to do that, because we’ve dabbled in seagrass restoration before. We’ve done two projects. We know it’s really hard.
So that’s a long-term piece and the flip side of it is in the meantime we’re going to have to find ways to keep manatees doing well until the food source is restored. We have in the past, we’ve been a support agency for the federal and the state agencies that move manatees around and rescue them. We show up and we lend trained bodies. Last year with the feeding efforts we were an organization assisting them with that. We’re going to be building on some smaller rehab facilities for acute care, sort of the longer term care here at the zoo. We hope to have one come online this year, two more come online next year, and then the aquarium itself has a major critical care facility built into it for manatees. A large series of hospital tanks, you know, we have a large veterinary staff to tend to them.
We like the plan because manatees are difficult in terms of veterinary medicine. We have a very experienced team here at the zoo. Nothing usually scares them but they want to get the experience under their belt, sort of the acute care first, before we take on any critical manatee cases.
KJ Ayres: Keith, can you tell me a little bit about what you’re expecting the economic impact of the aquarium to have within the community?
Keith Winston: Sure. The first thing we do is we run lots of projections because we need to make sure it will at a minimum pay for itself and do more for that. So early on, actually in 2015, we worked with the economic development commission and they did an economic impact study. You have to understand that study is now seven years old for a much smaller facility, but they came and they saw that sort of, in a very conservative way, we expect the multiplier effects would be about 900 jobs in the community in 80-90 million dollars of annual economic impact. I think it’s going to be considerably more than that but we’ll start with the conservative numbers.
KJ Ayres: So how much of an impact do you believe the aquarium project will have on tourism in the area?
Keith Winston: Well, we are really at this tipping point I think in terms of tourism here. We have the beaches, of course, but what really makes us distinctive and different from other places is both cruise tourism and space tourism. People come for [the] Kennedy Space Center. They come for launches. They come for the cruising. We are literally right next to the port and we actually give people a reason to stay an extra morning or come an extra morning. I don’t think they’re going to come to Brevard County just for that but we let them linger longer and extend their stay.
Our facility is really beautifully positioned to watch launches. We’re projecting about 120 launches a year. We have great function facilities that people can either come and individually watch, or, if it’s an aerospace company that wants to highlight something there. So there’s a whole big function piece of this coming as well.
So the tourism impact, the multiplier there, and the function impact and the support we can do for our corporate partners is great and then there’s multipliers for there. And we also have the ability now to say, hey, Brevard County, we’re going to be right on the beach in between the zoo and the aquarium and the Space Center, sort of [the] three major attractions here you can base your holiday here. Not in Orlando, where, you know, it’s five degrees warmer and there’s no beach to go to.
KJ Ayres: So Keith, we talked a little bit earlier about the coastal conservation hub. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you guys at the Brevard Aquarium Project have planned for that?
Keith Winston: As I mentioned there’s a three-story building we’re calling the coastal conservation hub. It started as a two-story building but we realized there’s not enough space and that’s really about facilitating stewardship of the lagoon and other coastal bodies, really both today and tomorrow.
On the “today” purpose, it’s going to have lots of meeting spaces and some lab space so work can be done there on the northern end of the lagoon that’s really collaborative, and it will facilitate those efforts.
And then in terms of [the] “tomorrow” group, it’ll have a whole series of classrooms and all the things we do there but I want to be really clear, I mean, aquariums do lots of education programs and that’s an important part of what we do but it’s how we touch people throughout their visit that matters and how we touch them back in their homes, right?
One of the things the zoo has done is built a brand people trust. So when we give them advice on things that are contentious or ask them to change some of their behaviors, they have a familiarity with us and a trust with us that really translates into action. And then it sort of goes from there. So I mentioned the seagrass nurseries earlier. Right now we’re working with Cocoa Beach Junior Senior High School and actually they’re going to be setting up sort of an aquaculture program there. Kids are learning to not only work and grow seagrass which we think is going to be a great career in the future but actually how to work with life support systems. So you’re going to see those students down the road end up doing internships with the aquarium, [and] taking care of our life source filters that take care of all the animals.
So it’s those connections in the community that go a lot deeper than just a visit or a single class there. It’s how we touch their lives many times and they really come to trust us and get engaged in those pieces so there’s a caring aspect of it too. The waterfront of the aquarium is a series of, you know, it’s a boardwalk through the mangroves that [lead] right up to the water’s edge or you’ll see seagrass where we show you the sort of things you can do off your dock, right. So you can pull up oyster habitats, you can repot mangroves, we’ll be showing you seagrass work as it goes and some of the other things.
Touching people many times is really critical to sort of how you change their actual behavior and engaging them in an initial behavior that will lead to more behavior.
KJ Ayres: I know at the IRLNEP we really encourage Living Lagoon Friendly. How are you guys hoping to engage with the community and get that message out there?
Keith Winston: So you know lots of things that we always talk to folks about is that you have dozens of choices to make environmental decisions every day. I don’t really know anyone who always makes the right choice, but our goal is to get you in a position so you recognize it’s a good environmental decision and you make it.
Lots of things we talked about a little bit already, so for example, what’s the seafood you buy? There are better sustainable choices and less sustainable choices. What are the plastics you use? Are you using a reusable bottle or are you always buying a new water bottle? And let’s face it, even the most dedicated folks do buy water bottles occasionally but you want to minimize that behavior. What are you doing if you’re now mowing the lawn in your backyard, what are you doing to make sure that those lawn mowings aren’t going into a storm sewer into the lagoon?
So we can touch on lots of small behaviors that add up and empower folks and part of the aquarium experience is sort of hitting that in a way they can connect it directly to the marine life that they love so much, and they’re fascinated by and we model those behaviors. So for example, at the concessions at the zoo right now it’s not disposable. You get a metal tray and real silverware and the only thing that’s throw away is actually the cups, and those are compostable. So you can also model for other businesses how you can make a difference that way.
KJ Ayres: Awesome. So what can people do to get actively involved in the aquarium project moving forward and how can citizens donate directly to the project if they wanted to?
Keith Winston: So this has been an interesting project. We’ve sort of done it backwards. So first of all, let me give you a little scope of the project. It’s a 14 acre site. It’s got like 12 buildings on it. It’s an indoor outdoor experience because you’re in Florida. We don’t want to put you in a big concrete building. The zero line where we build from is eight feet above sea level because sea level rise as we all know is real and coming and happening and we want to model resilience for how we build things so it’s not an inexpensive project.
We are looking for primarily private dollars but also some public dollars to pay for this so we have a 100 million dollar capital campaign and we’re really approaching the 50 million mark so we feel really excited about that. Some State money has come through. Tourism in Brevard County has committed 10 million dollars.
KJ Ayres: That’s awesome.
Keith Winston: And we’re looking for potentially a little more. We’ll see if that comes to fruition but the great lion’s share of this is going to be a private donation. So typically if you were doing a capital campaign the first 50 million is just during a silent campaign. You don’t announce it to the public. You don’t even let them know what you’re working on. You work with your donors and those who do it but that’s not happening for two reasons. First of all, this is cited on public land and we had to lock up the land before we move forward so we’ve been in discussion with the port for years and so everyone is aware it’s coming, it’s there.
Also, as we mentioned a little earlier, we really see this as a regional project and we don’t have as strong a donor base in Orange County and in Volusia, so we’re building that in real time. So we’re talking about the impacts of the aquarium at the same time that we’re fundraising. So again typically at this time we’re looking for big gifts, and let me first say if anyone out there wants to give a gift of any size, we’re thrilled. And if they want to give us a really big check, we’re even more thrilled. But there’s other ways to engage people.
Once we hit this 50 million mark, we’re going to go back to sort of this community engagement model that we started with and we’ll be doing that outside of Brevard as well as giving people opportunities to do a number of things. First of all, hands on things, we’re going to be doing some restoration around the site, continuing that tradition that people can just give us some sweat equity. Sort of probably forming a speaker’s bureau to get the word out and educate people about it. There will be potentially some votes down the road that matter. We want people to vote for us if we have a project that needs a vote in some way. Or not really your vote, but just call the folks up at the state in Tallahassee and say this is a good thing to invest in.
Then near the end of it we will do what’s known as public campaign where we’re looking for smaller donations, and we’re happy to do [that] right now, and there’s lots of ways to do it in terms of our website, etc.—but down the road at the end we’ll close the last piece almost with the bake sales (I can’t say car washes anymore because car washes are not good for the neighborhood lagoon.) You only want to go to a professional car wash to do that and do those things.
So lots and lots of opportunities out there, and we want the whole community engaged by the time that we go to construction which hopefully has to actually happen by the fall of 2024. If people want to know how to give to us they can go to our fundraising site, it’s called ourlegacycampaign.org and they can see, you know, different ways to give there.
They could [also] just go to the zoo website and find things there but we really do want to engage not just our community but again the communities around us in this prospect.
KJ Ayres: So Keith, I’m really excited about this project and I know everybody else on the IRL is excited as well. I guess this is going to be my last question but is there any final message that you want to leave with our listeners?
Keith Winston: Well, you know, it is interesting to me, we never really know the multiplier of things we do and how they make a difference out there, and so [here is] just one story I love to tell:
We work with a little mouse that’s only found in the Panhandle on the barrier beaches on Perdido Key. It is called the Perdido Key Beach Mouse, and there’s seven subspecies of beach mice running around in Florida. Most of them are in some trouble, but they’re really our friend because like squirrels that bury acorns, they spend all day on the dunes and they’re planting seeds that end up growing into dune plants that anchor the dunes, so you really want them.
Back in 2004, one of the federal agencies, Fish and Wildlife, ended up collecting some of these mice before a hurricane because they were worried they’d be wiped out, and then this little population sort of lingered at a university where they would breed occasionally. But they weren’t doing very well until they gave them to a couple of zoos including ourselves, and we sort of cracked the case on how you breed beach mice. You put them in big tanks full of sand, they’re beach mice. They don’t want to live in a lab category and they started breeding like crazy. We ended up working in Perdido Key and restoring the population of these mice, which we think are pretty special and because they live in the dunes, the dunes have protection.
So fast forward to last year, I was with my wife in Nashville for a weekend to see a couple of concerts and we found ourselves actually talking to some other people from Florida in our hotel. We were swapping stories and then finally my wife said to the gentleman, “So where’d you grow up in Florida?” Because you know they’re from the Panhandle, and he said, “Perdido Key.” And you know I went over to him, and I said I don’t know if you’re gonna hit me or hug me but we saved your mouse [population] and the guy actually hugged me and he said you saved my island. He said “Because of the presence of those mice in the dunes, the dunes have been protected, development has been much smarter, they haven’t developed everything down to the water line, they haven’t had masses of hotel and condos where they shouldn’t be, and Perdido Key today looks much like where I grew up and that’s because of the presence of that mouse in the dune.”
So you never know where a little action here in Brevard County can have something way across the other end of Florida, and that’s what we teach people every day. Obviously the aquarium is the opposite of that. It is a big, hairy, audacious, transformative project. So you can just think about what the impacts of that can be on the next generation, on the current generation, on the citizens, on our space industry trying to attract people to our community. There’s so many multipliers and our community is doing really well right now.
We still have a lot of challenges environmentally but this is a time to invest and that’s really why we’re so excited about this project.
KJ Ayres: I know for one I’m super excited about this project and I know everybody in the community is as well. I want to thank you, Keith, so much for taking the time to talk more about the Brevard Aquarium Project.
Keith Winston: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
KJ Ayres: If you’ve enjoyed the discussions today about the Indian River Lagoon, please like and subscribe to this podcast. To learn more about the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program on how you can get involved, tips about Living Lagoon Friendly or how to support the lagoon by purchasing One Lagoon merchandise visit us at OneLagoon.org. To stay informed on lagoon news and upcoming events follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, all at One Lagoon. Thanks again.
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