By Danielle Filjon
From turtle spotting to salt marsh fishing, environmental science research expands our understandings of local marine life here in St. Augustine through its students.
Flagler College senior Jasmine Silvennoinen is a coastal environmental science major with a big passion for aquatic life and environmental conservation.
“I think it’s so cool to bring science into marine identification and enhance knowledge and education on how to help these species,” Silvennoinen said. “I also just really love sea turtles.”
Silvennoinen and her roommate Michaela Sipes assist Flagler professor of environmental science Dr. Ed McGinley in his research to identify sea turtles across local marinas to see if they are part of the same population of local turtles.
This is part of an effort to see if climate change or the local dredging by St. Johns county is affecting turtle populations.
Every Thursday morning since August 2020, Silvennoinen and Sipes have set out to Camachee Cove Marina, near the Vilano Beach bridge, equipped with a Go-pro for underwater photography and an above-shore camera. They walk up and down each dock in the marina trying to spot sea turtles.
“We try to get good photos of their shells and heads so that we can enter them into a big database of turtle pictures,” Silvennoinen said. “The scale patterns and shell patterns are unique to every turtle, so we will be able to see if this turtle comes to a marina multiple times or travels around in St. Augustine.”
An application called Hotspotter scans hundreds of photos and is able to identify sea turtles by their scales and shell patterns.
“It would take us hours to do all of it manually, Hotspotter is really helpful and accurate,” Silvennoinen said.
Camachee Cove is just one of many marinas involved in the study, with Dr. McGinley and other research assistants doing the same research at different marinas in St. Augustine.
Silvennoinen is also involved in the coastal environmental science department’s Capstone research program where she and a group of students research fish populations in St. Augustine salt marshes.
“We are monitoring the species of fish in these salt marshes, and their size to learn about biodiversity in the area,” Jasmine said. “This helps them get a better idea of what species are thriving in St. Augustine’s salt marsh ecosystem.”
Captain Zach McKenna, a Flagler alumni, takes the group of students out on his boat on the Matanzas River to the salt marsh observation site. Once there, the students use a fyke net to capture the fish swimming in the estuary.
“Conservation trips are so rewarding,” McKenna said. “These trips are so important to understanding the local ecosystem.”
After waiting a few minutes for the fish to swim into the net, the group relocates them into a bucket where they count, measure, and document the species of the fish before releasing them back into their habitat.
Through her time and work here at Flagler College, Silvennoinen has expanded local scientific knowledge about the natural environment in St. Augustine.
Her career goals are either to become a marine biologist or a vet tech for exotic aquatic species. After her graduation in spring, she plans on being part of a research team in Honduras for whale sharks.