A Fort Frye High School graduate is using cutting-edge technology to learn why water quality is declining in bays along the Gulf of Mexico, an issue impacting other estuaries around the world.
"A lot of the problems we're seeing down here are not necessarily unique to Texas," said Mike Wetz, assistant professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "It's really a combination of climate change and man's influence on our estuaries."
An estuary is where a river meets the ocean, resulting in a mix of fresh and salt water. It's an area of research toward which Wetz has gravitated after first becoming interested in marine biology as a child because of sharks.
"It's my brother's fault," the 35-year-old Lowell native said with a laugh. "He made me watch 'Jaws' when I was a little kid."
Wetz became fascinated with the underwater predators, an interest his parents and teachers supported by encouraging him to read and learn more about them. His mother, Getti Wetz, 68, of Lowell, remembers taking him and a friend to see a shark dissection one winter when her son was 12.
"He begged me to take him there," she recalled. "I got books here galore about sharks."
After graduating from Fort Frye in 1996, Wetz enrolled at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., to study marine science.
"There I kind of realized that I wasn't as much interested in sharks anymore as I was ... entire ecosystems," he said.
From there, Wetz headed to Oregon State University, where he earned a master's and doctorate in oceanography and worked with one of the world's top algae experts. He's been at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi since 2010 and will be taking over as coordinator of the marine biology Ph.D. program there this year.
According to an article on the school's website, Wetz received a $70,000-plus grant last year from the Texas General Land Office to study water quality in Oso Bay in Corpus Christi. Earlier this year, county commissioners contributed $11,500 to a water monitoring and sampling effort Wetz is leading in Baffin Bay, about 50 miles to the south, where fish had been turning up malnourished and a phenomenon called a "brown tide" had been reported, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times.
"It looks like there's been a pretty significant deterioration of water quality," Wetz said. "We're trying to figure out the cause."
The quality of the water affects commercial and recreational fishing, Wetz said. Some species of fish start life in the estuary while others stay there.
"There are a lot of people that make their living (fishing) on the bay," he said. "Something's going on with the food web down there that's not providing enough food for the fish."
A brown tide is caused by a specific species of plankton that groups together in such great numbers the water appears brown, Wetz said. That type of plankton is not a good food source for the fish and other animals in the ecosystem of the estuary. Other species of plankton die off as its numbers rise and it shades seagrass that grows on the bottom of the bay, removing prime habitat for fish, he said.
The technology Wetz and others involved in the study are using to monitor the water includes a buoy system that measures water quality in real time so researchers know when a change takes place and an autonomous underwater vehicle that can be programmed and sent into the water to gather data over eight to 10 hours.
"It looks like an underwater torpedo," Wetz said.
Gitti Wetz said she and husband Noel are very proud of their son's accomplishments.
"It's his dream, so we're just very happy for him that he's getting to do what he's wanting to do," she said.