Bay Point Elementary student recognized for project to raise money to tag marine animals

A Bay Point Elementary School student working to raise money to buy acoustic tags for marine animals was named a “Gulf Guardian” during a special EPA awards ceremony in Corpus Christi, Texas. Video on Cory’s award.

uTag for iiTag bumper stickers.

uTag for iiTag bumper stickers.

Nine-year-old Cory Diaz learned about a new effort to place an array of acoustic receivers in the Gulf of Mexico from her mom, Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA). So she decided to raise money for animal tags for her school community service project. She created the uTAG for iTAG campaign through CrowdRise, an online fundraising site.

Tracking animals — animal telemetry — is the science of using tags to learn about species movement and behavior and gather habitat information, including things like ocean salinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, currents and more. Research scientists and resource managers have been tagging animal species throughout the Gulf of Mexico for years, using acoustic tags to unlock key information about the habitats where species spend their lives and about the threats animals face on the water.

But often, researchers have receivers in discreet areas and host data individually.

Now, a half-dozen groups are coming together to try to expand the number of underwater receivers that are in the Gulf and develop arrays in key areas to provide a better regional view of animals and their habitat use, to more widely share tracking data and to work on habitat and species restoration, especially following environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The effort is called the Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Organisms in the Gulf of Mexico — or iTAG.

Gathering this information and being able to share it more easily will play a critical role in protecting threatened and endangered species, protecting commercial fisheries, filling gaps in oceanographic knowledge and improving ocean modeling and forecasting, according to Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, GCOOS-RA Executive Director. GCOOS-RA will offer a data portal where the tracking information will soon be gathered and shared.

Bay Point Elementary School teacher Renee Hale with Cory.

Bay Point Elementary School teacher Renee Hale with Cory.

The partnership includes the GCOOS-RA, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), the University of South Alabama, Texas A&M University and the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN). Canadian-based OTN helps develop acoustic telemetry projects around the world by providing acoustic receivers and expertise. They are loaning underwater receivers worth $500,000 to FWC – which is leading the iTAG effort. Dr. Jay Rooker (Texas A&M), Dr. Will Patterson (USA) and Dr. Susan Lowerre-Barbieri (FWC) will oversee the receiver arrays deployed throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in the Florida Keys and are in the process of seeking additional funding to support this research.

Cory is doing her part to make that happen. Her goal is to raise $20,000.”I started this project to put the ‘U’ and ‘me’ in iTAG!” Cory said. “I hope very much that other kids get inspired by my work, just like I was inspired when my mom took me to a (previous) Gulf Guardian ceremony and I saw the ‘G is for Gulf’ project done by other kids. It is important to know that we can all help protect the Gulf.”

The Gulf Guardian Awards, given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Gulf of Mexico Program, recognize and honor the businesses, community groups, individuals and agencies that are keeping the Gulf healthy, beautiful and productive. First, second and third place awards are given in seven categories: individual, business/industry, youth environmental education, civic/nonprofit organizations, cultural diversity/environmental justice, partnership and bi-national efforts. During a special dinner hosted by the EPA on Thursday, Cory and Renee Hale, her teacher at Bay Point Elementary school, were recognized as first place winners in the youth environmental education category for their fundraising efforts.

“Cory truly exemplifies what it means to be a Gulf Guardian,” Kirkpatrick said. “We can all do our part to help protect the Gulf of Mexico — no matter what age we are.”

The Gulf of Mexico Program began in 1988 to protect, restore, and maintain the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem in economically sustainable ways. The program seeks to improve the environmental health of the Gulf in concert with economic development.