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Hundreds of tiny redfish smaller than a pinkie fingernail swim around in a large tank at the Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station in Bonita Springs.

Soon these creatures will be separated into smaller tanks for the beginning of a new research study aimed at learning about the effects of mercury on redfish.

Jessica Godwin, a grad student at Florida Gulf Coast University, heads up the study.

Her plan is to feed redfish in one set of tanks regular food with no mercury. The second set will eat mackerel with low levels of mercury; another set will feed on mackerel with medium amounts of mercury while the final set of fish will eat mackerel with high levels of mercury.

“We will see how it affects them and their organs,” Godwin said.

After about a month and a half of eating this food, Godwin will look at how mercury affects their liver, kidneys, muscles and brain. She will also be studying their behavior looking for things such as how they swim, how they breathe, how they sustain themselves in the water and how active the fish are.

“I believe the mackerel with the higher levels will have an effect on the fish,” she said. “In the higher level tanks there could be possible abnormal growth and possible behavioral issues.”

The study has its challenges. Redfish babies are known for eating each other.

“They are in the carnivore cannibal stage so they do eat each other if they get hungry,” she explained. “So we have to keep them well fed. If they have an orangeish pink belly they are full.”

There were 600 redfish ordered -- but by the time they arrived at the Vester Research Station, there were only 500. Now there are only about 200-300 left, although that is plenty for the study.

“They gave us a lot more than we needed because of that,” she said.

Godwin says there have been numerous studies on how mercury in fish affects the people who eat them, but there have been few studies on how the mercury actually affects the fish.

“I want people to understand that this is harming the fish,” she said.

Bob Wasno, coordinator of Vester research station, said projects like this are what the Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station is all about. Since it opened in 2008 students have been studying a wide variety of marine activity.

There were three students from France that did projects there as well as about 18 grad students from FGCU. There have also been numerous undergraduate seniors that have done their final research projects at the facility.

“We had a boatload of students that just finished up their projects,” Wasno said.

“This place has the potential to cover almost every aspect of science here.”

The Vester research station sits on an .8-acre parcel on Little Hickory Island in Bonita Springs.

It includes classrooms, wet and dry laboratories, apartments, offices, a conference room and a large open area for aquatic species and holding tanks connected to running seawater system. The research center is surrounded by water on three sides and has 11 boat slips.

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