UTRGV Texas OneGulf research grant will focus on Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem

Three professors in the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences are among an elite group of scientists awarded two-year research grants as part of the Texas OneGulf Center of Excellence.

UTRGV’s Dr. John “Chip” Breier, associate professor, Dr. David Hicks, professor, and Dr. Hudson DeYoe, professor, in collaboration with Dr. Warren Pulich at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos, were awarded $213,956 for their proposal, “Developing a predictive ecosystem model for the Lower Laguna Madre.”

Texas OneGulf is one of two consortia established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to enable usage of federal funding provided through the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2010 (RESTORE Act).

The RESTORE Act requires the five Gulf States affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill – an 87-day discharge of millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico – to establish centers of excellence for conducting research on the Gulf Coast region.

Texas OneGulf, a consortium of nine Texas institutions, is a unique multi-disciplinary team of marine science, socio-economic and human health researchers united to promote collaborative research and problem-solving actions in support of programs, projects and activities that restore and protect the environment and economy of the Gulf Coast region. The total grant funding for all nine institutions’ research is $2 million.

“Our project will develop a predictive ecological model, with the goal to bring together all of the essential cross-disciplinary information needed to predict future trends in water quality and ecosystem health for the Lower Laguna Madre,” Breier said.

The grant will support the research and education of three graduate students in the new School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences at the new UTRGV Coastal and Ocean Science Center (COSC). Currently in the design stage, a COSC facility will be located on Garcia Street in Port Isabel.

“The Lower Laguna Madre is a vital, unique, and ecologically important region of the Gulf of Mexico, yet it remains terribly data-poor,” Breier said. “Starting immediately, we hope to use retrieved data to begin generating predictions.”

Breier said this is the first step in developing a working predictive model, and that it will improve over time as the dataset and understanding of the system grow.

“Whether the implications of our predictions are good, bad or mixed, the key goal is that the predictions themselves are as accurate as they can be,” he said. “The result of the team’s research will be increased resiliency of our coastal communities and the overall health and well-being of the population.”

Texas OneGulf is led by the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

“We are very appreciative of the governor’s support of Texas OneGulf as it has allowed us to fund these diverse and innovative projects,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, HRI Director. “What happens in the Gulf of Mexico affects the health and economic well-being of Texas citizens on a daily basis, and making sure that we focus the best available science on these issues is the goal of our RESTORE designated Center of Excellence.”

By Cheryl Taylor, Special to the Star

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SNIFFING OUT CLUES SPI Fire Department to get accelerant detection canine

The South Padre Island Fire Department next year will be adding a four-legged investigator to its arson team.

The City of South Padre Island will be acquiring an arson dog, through a scholarship granted in October from State Farm, that will begin its service in May 2018.

“This team will be used to investigate fire, but also provide community outreach programs and education seminars on fire prevention and safety,” Chief Doug Fowler said in a press release.

The State Farm Arson Dog Program was established in 1993 and has resulted in more than 380 dogs and their partners being put to work in 45 states, three Canadian provinces and in the District of Columbia, according to State Farm.

Accelerant detection canines, or arson dogs, are able to sniff out accelerants like gas and lighter fluid that may have been used to start fires. Canines and their handlers must complete 200 hours of training. State Farm provides financial aid for acquiring an arson dog and training it.

South Padre Island’s arson dog, which will be a labrador, will be the only accelerant detection canine in the lower Rio GrandeValley, according to the South Padre Island Fire Department. The canine will be able to locate accelerants at a fire scene in about 20 minutes, which would take a fire investigator hours to do.

However, according to the fire department, donations are needed because the program can’t run long term without continued grant funding and donations. In a press release, the SPI Fire Department said donations are needed to help pay for ongoing costs of dog food, routine veterinary services, training aids and training props.

The SPI Fire Department has set up a fundraising page seeking donations at

So far, the fire department has raised $1,850 out of its $6,000 goal.

By MARK REAGAN | Staff Writer

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Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles Reach Highest Population in Years

Thanks to the collaborative effort between the Gladys Porter Zoo and several Mexican government agencies, the Kemps ridley sea turtle has seen its highest population in years.

The Kemps ridley sea turtle bi-national project started in 1978 as a cooperative program between Mexico and the United States to restore the Kemps ridley population to sustainable levels.

GPZ Curator of Conservation Jaime Peña said the Gulf of Mexico is home to five species of sea turtles.

Peña said one of the reasons the Kemps ridley population has decreased is because it’s the smallest sea turtle out of the seven species and nests only on the RanchoNuevoBeach in Tamaulipas, which is a big disadvantage for the species.

The nesting season for the Kemps ridley recently ended with 25,000 registered nests and each nest containing from 95 to 100 eggs.

“Basically what we do is we get there at the beginning of March just before the turtles start nesting and they’ll stay in their protective corrals in six different camps in Tamaulipas and South Padre Island,” Peña said.

Volunteers patrol the beaches and wait for the turtles to come out to collect as many eggs as they can before they harden. The eggs are about the size of a Ping-Pong ball.

“When they just lay the eggs, they’re very soft and leathery and in about eight hours they will harden,” Peña said.

Pena said it is estimated that one out of 1,000 baby turtles will make it to adulthood.

“This year, given the 25,000 registered nests, we did some estimates and we released 1.2 million (Kemps ridley) baby turtles into the Gulf of Mexico,” Peña said.

By Kaila Contreras Staff Writer

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County Raises RV Fees at Isla Blanca to Fund Improvements

Sherry and Richard Fry were relaxing in lawn chairs on a sunny Wednesday morning in the RV park at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island. 

The couple, who hail from Michigan, say they have been visiting for 13 years because the spot just can’t be beaten.

“The truth is, it’s a bargain right now,” Fry said. “There’s nowhere else you can go and be this close to the water.”

The Frys aren’t the only ones who recognize the bargain, either. Cameron County commissioners also are aware.

“When we’re done, you and I are telling everyone we’re going to have the nicest facility on the Gulf Coast,” County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., told Parks Director Joe Vega during a meeting Tuesday.

“So I don’t think it’s a problem to charge the individuals a proper rate since they’ll have the use of state-of-the-art facilities.”

Vega was in front of the Cameron County Commissioners Court, asking commissioners to sign off on RV rental site fee increases and to approve updates to the planned second phase of facility improvements in the park. Those fees are expected to help pay for the second phase.

Plans to upgrade facilities at Isla Blanca Park stretch back two years ago, when Cameron County adopted a master plan for its parks on South Padre Island. Initially, the plans set expansive goals that included proposed tennis and pickle ball courts, and even a dog park. Two years later, Vega described that master plan as more of a wish list than a to-do list.

“It was more like a working document, but not all that’s on the master plan is going to be included with our improvements,” Vega said during an interview.

However, even the toned-down version, in regards to Phase 2 of the Isla Blanca Park improvements, which include improvements to the Gulf-side amenities, has commissioners worried whether the rate increase on RV-site rentals is adequate.

Trevino said during that meeting that the Commissioners Court needs to make sure the rates are sufficient for the market area and what the county will be providing to people who visit Isla Blanca, which already experienced a 50-percent increase on its entry fee last year, from $5 to $10.

“Because, obviously, the individuals that are going to be renting these spaces have RV vehicles. They have the means,” Trevino said. “We’re not talking about the families that go there for a day. We’re talking about individuals that have RVs that are going to stay for weeks at a time and, in the past, that have stayed for months and years at a time.”

Right now, monthly fees at the RV park range from $390 per month to $525 per month, depending on location and whether the sites are partial or full hook-ups, and whether they have cable, according to the county’s website.

The fee schedule that commissioners approved last Monday increases those fees to $600 to $800 per month during the summer peak season. And during winter and spring, those monthly rental rates spread from $500 to $750. These rates take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Commissioner Sofia C. Benavides, who represents the South Padre Island and Port Isabel areas on the commissioners court, supports the rate increase.

“First of all, we’ve taken the first step to move forward in improving our parks, and second of all, I think we need to bring up our prices also,” she said. “I think now we really need to move forward with this.”

But it’s uncertain whether the increases can actually fund Phase 2 improvements.

“We’re currently looking at $13 million in improvements and finance that we’re going to seek for Isla Blanca Park,” Vega said during that meeting.

Right now, commissioners don’t believe the RV rental increases are substantial enough for the price-tag, and Commissioner David A. Garza said the fee schedule should be revisited on an annual basis.

“Having a very, very substantial increase at one time and not knowing how the public was going to react to that, you know, if we were to double or triple the price it may be that we get less revenue because we have less people coming,” said David Gordon, managing director at Estrada Hinojosa Investment Bankers, during the meeting.

Vega said Phase 2 includes tearing down and rebuilding the DJ Lerma and Sandpiper pavilions, along with adding a boardwalk that connects the two. Phase 2 also includes relocating several dunes in the park, improving roads and creating more parking. The total price tag on the current proposal is just less than $17 million.

However, as commissioners and the parks department figure out how to pay for Phase 2 improvements, Phase 1 construction has yet to even start.

That part of the project, which costs a little less than $6.5 million and is being paid through venue taxes, will bring an amphitheater and multi-purpose building to the area by Dolphin Cove.

“Once we get bids and they come within budget, from there we’ll determine a date to break ground,” Vega said.

The final phase of improvements at Isla Blanca will focus on the RV park, where Vega said his department is looking to upgrade infrastructure and to build additional sites.

Meanwhile, though, the Frys said they feel completely in the dark as to what is happening in the park. That sentiment was echoed by others who didn’t want their names in the newspaper.

And would-be visitors who want to reserve spots in 2018 are unable to, leaving an air of uncertainty. Not only that, some said they know changes are coming to Isla Blanca Park, but what those changes are depends on who is telling the story.

“Stories abound about what’s going to be done,” Sherry Fry said.

Her husband concurred.

“Anyone you talk to, you get a different answer,” he said. “We just want our spot.”

Vega said the parks department is working on updating RV park policies and, after they satisfy the Commissioners Court and are approved, then Vega said he hopes to open the park back up to reservations.

“We are not taking any reservations for the following season. We are still working on the financing for the RV site construction schedule,” Vega said. “We don’t want to take any reservations, and then start the project and give notices that they are not going to be able to come in.”

Those improvements to the RV park will be done in sections.

“Once we put the plan together, then we’re going to open up for reservations,” he said. “We’re hoping that once the court adopts the revisions to the park policies and once we determine a plan, then we’re going to open up for reservations.”

By MARK REAGAN Staff Writer

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SPI Fire Department Receives Arson Dog Scholarship

The City of South Padre Island Fire Department has received a scholarship from State Farm to add an arson dog as a community and regional asset. The new, four-legged firefighter will begin serving our community in May 2018.

Accelerant detection canines, also know as arson dogs, are trained to sniff out minute traces or accelerants (gasoline,lighter fluid,etc.) that may have been used to start a fire in about 20 minutes.

"We are very excited about adding this great program to our community," stated Doug Fowler, fire chief. "This team will be used to investigate fire, but also provide community outreach programs and education seminars on fire prevention and safety."

This program cannot run long term without continued grant funding and donations. The cost of acquiring the arson dog is covered, but the ongoing costs of dog food, routine veterinary services, training aids, training props for the new 4-legged firefighter is still needed.

If you would like to help make this program a great success in our community please consider a donation today through

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Butterflies Mean Big Business in Valley

The Rio Grande Valley is a respected destination for butterfly enthusiasts, who travel to South Texas in droves each year for a chance to find species that cannot be spotted anywhere else in the nation.

From South Padre Island to Starr County, the geography differs enough to make drives from one end of the Valley to another worthwhile for many eco-tourists, who might be able to spot a different species in Brownsville than in McAllen, for example.

Because of this, the NationalButterflyCenter in Mission organizes an annual Texas Butterfly Festival, which concludes today but has featured guided nature tours to a number of refuges and hotspots—including some “secret gardens” on private lands.

“It’s peak butterfly season now,” said Marianna Treviño Wright, the center’s executive director. “And it could continue for months if we don’t have ‘winter,’ which we frequently do not in the Rio GrandeValley. So we’re busy planting, we’re counting butterflies. We’re assessing the volume of species. We have a lot of butterflies.”

Through the course of the year, approximately 350 species of butterflies that can be found in the Valley’s four counties—which is “really unprecedented on the American landscape,” she said.

“We have more butterflies in Deep South Texas than anywhere in North America,” she added.

That’s the driving reason the North American Butterfly Association founded its National Butterfly Center in Mission—and why it has long-term plans to continue building and investing in the 100-acre property not far from the Rio Grande.

The butterfly diversity in the Valley still might surprise some residents, who may seldom see many varieties inside city limits in areas not cultivated with butterfly friendly plants.

“A lot of that is because as we develop we remove a lot of the weeds and native plants,” Treviño Wright said. “And I hate to say ‘weeds.’ We want those. Butterflies want it wild and weedy, and all of those native plants that grow on the roadsides and the wild places.”

Many popular landscaping plants—though beautiful to people—do little to attract or feed butterflies and caterpillars.

“Butterflies need food, but they need two types of food,” Treviño Wright said.

Caterpillars need host plants to devour leaves and foliage, which will grow back. Butterflies need flowering plants, which provide nectar and might also attract hummingbirds.

Plants are so vital to the mission of the NationalButterflyCenter that NABA continues to devote acres of its property to important plants. The NBC recently planted on 4 1/2 acres to grow a federally endangered plant found growing wild in few places in the United States—all in the Valley. The Tamaulipan kidney petal is a shrub with only three known populations left in the wild.

“We are cultivating this land specifically for butterflies,” Treviño Wright said.

The plantings help the environment beyond butterflies, such as helping birds and other wildlife. Also, the impact should help the local economy.

“Every year, we get tens of thousands of eco-tourists,” she said. “The economic impact has been calculated at over $460 million a year, just for our four-county region.”

By RYAN HENRY Staff Writer

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Food Stars: Network Crew Comes to Town to Film Shrimp Cook-off

“Bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp with jalapeño and cream cheese,” announced Jordan Nall.

She was introducing a new recipe from Señor Donkey on South Padre Island where she works as a hostess.

The restaurant had sent one of 15 teams to compete in the 24th Annual World’s Championship Shrimp Cook-Off held yesterday at Sutherland’s Express store in Port Isabel.

Everyone was especially excited by the presence of three film crews creating a segment for the Food Network.

The crew from Pink Sneakers Productions had been hired to produce the segment for the popular show.

This was a first for the cook-off, said Betty Wells, director of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce, which presented the festival.

“We were excited when they called and said they wanted to do a show for the Food Network,” Wells said.

Everyone else seemed excited, too. Visitors packed the parking lot sampling shrimp recipes from Dirty Al’s, Señor Donkey, H-E-B and other businesses. They’d journeyed from all parts of the Valley.

Camera crews busily filmed the preparation and tasting of various culinary concoctions.

“Raise it up,” said a cameraman to Casey Barfield, manager of White Sands Restaurant and Bar.

She and other employees of the Port Isabel restaurant were serving samples of two shrimp prepared with cream cheese, jalapeño and bacon. A toothpick held them together over a rice pilaf.

She smiled as the cameraman from Pink Sneakers Productions took close-up footage of the tantalizing dish, excited by the idea she and the restaurant might appear on the Food Network.

“This is our first time in the shrimp festival and we are being filmed,” Barfield said as she sold another sample. While for many it was a main course, it’s actually an appetizer on the menu.

“That’s going to be $6,” she said as she sold two more.

Pink Sneakers Productions conducts extensive research to generate ideas for submission to the Food Network, said April Vargas, post production supervisor.

“The Food Network hires us to do their shows,” she said.

Pink Sneakers has been traveling the country recently filming different food festivals. They’ve already filmed a mac and cheese festival and a pizza festival, and the Food Network also accepted the idea for the shrimp festival.

“Shrimp has so many different dishes,” she said as a band played “Pretty Woman.”

She speculated the show might air in January but couldn’t say for sure.

The festival had provided plenty of fodder for an interesting show, said Adrian Davila, supervising producer.

“We are having a lot of fun,” said Davila. “Some are using Malibu rum in their recipes.”

He stopped to consider before adding, “I don’t think I have seen anything crazy.”

He also referred to the production crew’s trips to various venues throughout the country filming segments for the Food Network. He was enjoying his time in the Port Isabel, more specifically South Padre.

“I used to come here with my family,” he said. “It’s been 10 years. It’s really cool.”

Meanwhile, visitors continued to taste the goods.

Visitors sampled shrimp saturated with bacon, cilantro and other flavors while a live band played “Cupid, Draw Back your Bow…” A woman stood with friends and washed it all down with a Michelob while enjoying the afternoon.

“This is the first time we moved it from Sunday to Saturday,” Wells said.

“We thought there would be more traffic through the area,” she said. “I think we have seen more.”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been here,” said Sandy Melville, 75, who’d traveled from Alamo.

“It’s been great,” she continued. “I think I like the coconut shrimp best.”

John Harris served a recipe from a stand set up by H-E-B.

“We are excited to be in this, just being in the Food Network,” he said.


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Artificial Reef in the Works North of SPI

We take a look at the proposed artificial reef miles north of South Padre Island.

According to its creators, Friends of RGV Reef, they plan to make an industrial scale artificial nursery reef, something that has never been seen on Texas coasts.

It’s a project that started with a simple idea, to attract more fish.

Gary Glick, President Friends of RGV Reef tells News Center 23 that this project began almost 3 years ago. He states, “My brother and I just thought that we needed a little bit more fishing area in state waters. Everything that we wanted to do to improve fishing was going to be a felony unless we got permits.”

Through collaborations, permits, and donations the artificial reef is slowly becoming one of the largest artificial nursery reefs. They are looking for the highly sought after red snapper, a fish commonly associated with reefs. It’s a type of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico, but in Texas Waters they not be as common due to how flat the sea floor can be. Visit your local restaurant and you will find red snapper selling for 40 to 50 dollars a pound.

“The bottom of the gulf is just as flat as it can be,” says Glick. “What we want to do is put down small rocks that these little fish can dodge around.”

Their hope is that those small fish have a chance to grow and survive to adulthood, thus  increasing their population.

Friends of RGV Reef has already sunk boats and debris. The reef is located about 14 miles north of the South Padre Island Jetties. We had a special opportunity to witness the first phases.

As the reef project got larger, so did the number of partners. As of the first phase, an estimated 400,000 thousand dollars have been invested in this project. From what we’ve seen, partners help in any way they can… such as donating debris or even helping with research.

UTRGV Environmental Marine Sciences Assistant Professor Dr. Richard Kline tells us, “We’ve had other reefs on the Texas coast, but we have never had a chance to engineer and put down things in an experimental design as we have with this one, for the benefit of juvenile reef fish.”

In this expedition in late June, they sink over 50 concrete pyramids. Each is about 10 feet tall and each goes down according to mapped out location. Dr. Kline tells us this is the largest artificial reef located on the Texas Coast at 1.2 square miles.

Kline believes this project will benefit research on reefs of this magnitude. He says, “We’re testing different hypotheses for what type of material to put out to give us more fish for the amount of material put out.”

Since our trip earlier this year, Friends of RGV reef has placed over 200 tons of debris into Texas waters.

“What we want is for little boys and girls to be able to catch. For them to be able to catch there has to be a lot of fish,” says Glick.  

-Alfredo Cuadros

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SpaceX: Progress Ongoing at Boca Chica Site, Second Antenna Added

SpaceX has finished installing a second ground station antenna at its future Boca Chica spaceport for the purpose of tracking Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station beginning in 2018.

Crew Dragon is the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s seven-seat spacecraft designed to carry humans to the ISS and other destinations. A SpaceX spokesman said the antennas will also be used to track flights from Boca Chica once they’re underway.

The company acquired the 86-ton antennas from NASA’s KennedySpaceCenter at Cape Canaveral and transported them to Boca Chica via semitrailer. The first antenna was installed this summer.

The Boca Chica site broke ground in September 2014. Later, 310,000 cubic yards of soil were trucked in over a period of months to stabilize the area. No concrete has been poured other than the antenna bases and no structures have been erected, though the STARGATE Technology Park, a public-private partnership between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX, is under construction across State Hwy. 4. No date has been set for the first launch from Boca Chica.

The company said it has completed 16 launches so far in 2017, including Monday’s launch of a Korean commercial communications satellite from KennedySpaceCenter.

“While SpaceX’s launch cadence has never been higher, and even as our teams have worked to modernize and improve our other launch complexes, we have continued to make progress on building the first-ever orbital commercial spaceport in South Texas,” said the spokesman.

Meanwhile, the company is at work developing its Interplanetary Transportation System, nicknamed “BFR,” which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk plans to use to transport humans to Mars for the purposes of colonization. BFR, which stands for “Big F— Rocket,” would feature 31 main engines propelling a spacecraft capable of carrying about 100 people.

Musk gave an update of his Mars plans at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress on Sept. 29 in Australia, during which he said the company plans to launch its first non-crewed flights to Mars by 2022. If all goes well, the first crewed flights to Mars would take place in 2024, he said.


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5 Things To Do This Week

1.    Boo at the Zoo

The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville will hold its 28th annual Boo at the Zoo celebration tonight and tomorrow night. The event runs from 6 to 9 p.m. each night. There will be a trick-or-treating experience for kids, teens and adults alike with more than 50 treat and game stations located throughout the zoo. There also will be a haunted house and mermaid show.

2.    Designing for a cure

One of the most unique and fun experiences you will have. Colorful, creative and innovative table settings will pack Casa de Amistad, 1204 Fair Park Boulevard, on Thursday, Nov. 2, all with the goal in mind to raise money to battle cancer. Now, the night event is already sold out, but you can see all the table settings and enjoy some great food during a special daytime preview from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The cost is $25 and funds raised goes to the American Cancer Society.

3.    Dia de los Muertos

It’s a traditional Mexican celebration of the memories of friends and loved ones who have passed away. This event, at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage museum, 2425 Boxwood, features altars designed by people of the community. Music will be provided by Grupo Americantos ad a dance drama by Matachine Dancers. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday, Nov. 2 through Nov. 12.

4.    Fall Festival and BBQ Cookoff “Que For Kids”

The first annual Harlingen Area Educational Foundation Fall Festival and BBQ cookoff “Que for Kids will be held Saturday, Nov. 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Lon C. Hill Park. This free event is open to the public and will have games, food, music and a guaranteed payout to the winners.

5.    SPI Open Water Festival

Open Water Plant returns to South Padre Island this upcoming weekend. Challenge yourself to conquer the Laguna Madre with a variety of distances. There is a full weekend of activities that will allow you to enjoy the island and nature.

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