Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce

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groundbreaking for SMS


J. Seward Johnson Jr. and Edwin Link
J. Seward Johnson, Jr. and Edwin Link

The Smithsonian Institution has had a presence in Fort Pierce, Florida since 1969. Through its association with long-time friend and supporter Edwin Link, inventor and engineer who chose this location for development of his research submersibles, and, through funding from J. Seward Johnson, Sr. of Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceuticals, the Smithsonian Institution established what was then known as the Fort Pierce Bureau. From 1969 to 1981, the Fort Pierce Bureau had a staff of many scientists who carried on various research activities, partly in collaboration with the newly formed Harbor Branch Foundation (now the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University). The studies included underwater oceanography with research submersibles, a survey of the Indian River Lagoon, coral reef research, and research on life histories of marine invertebrates. In 1981, the Smithsonian chose to transfer the administration of its Fort Pierce program to the National Museum of Natural History. The Fort Pierce Bureau was dissolved and the Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port was formally recognized as an organizational unit under the auspices of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian Barge
The Smithsonian Barge

At the time of the administrative transfer, a program of research was initiated at the Station that supported the studies of visiting Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, a resident scientist/ director, and the operations of the station including a 5-person support staff. As its base of operation, the Marine Station took over a former US Army barge, acquired originally by the Smithsonian in 1973 from Federal Surplus and docked on the campus of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution at 5612 Old Dixie Highway in Fort Pierce, Florida. The barge was retrofitted to house offices and laboratories and served as a scientific platform for Smithsonian research until the move to the present campus.

Phase I Laboratory
The Smithsonian Marine Station Phase I Laboratory

The non-expandable size of the Barge, and the fact that is was not a stable, land-based structure, placed limitations on the growth of the Station. Therefore, in April 1995, the Smithsonian entered into an agreement with the MacArthur Foundation for the purchase of 8 acres of property near the Fort Pierce Inlet with access easement to the Indian River Lagoon. In April, 1996 the purchase was completed and plans begun for construction at the new site at 701 Seaway Drive in Fort Pierce, Florida.


The property was to be developed in phases, and the groundbreaking for the Phase I research laboratory building took place on March 11, 1998. At the groundbreaking ceremony, the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Robert Fri, announced an official name change for the Station, reflecting its plans for relocation and future commitment, from the former name "Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port" to the current name "Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce" (SMS).

A residence for visiting scientists, included in Phase I of the Site Plan, was donated to the Marine Station by Jeanne and Peter Tyson in June, 1997 and officially designated by the Smithsonian as the Tyson House. The 1,480 square foot, 2-bedroom, 1½-bath house was designed by renowned regional architect, Peter Jefferson, in Florida vernacular style and was built on riverfront property in Vero Beach in 1977. It was floated on a barge down the Indian River Lagoon to reach it’s new home at SMS. Features in the house include a 20' cathedral ceiling, a fireplace, loft, and two glass walls in the living area which opens onto a wrap around deck. This space also contains a built-in eating area, reading benches, coffee table, and custom bookcases. The beauty of the design is set off by the use of heartwood pine flooring, solid maple countertops, and pecky cedar paneling.


Over the years, the research and educational offerings of the Smithsonian Marine Station have grown. In 1997, shortly before the move to the new campus, the program of the Marine Station was expanded by grants from Florida’s St. John’s Water Management District and the Smithsonian’s Seidell Program to support an online resource, the Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory. In 1998, the Link Foundation began funding Link Foundation/Smithsonian Institution Graduate Fellowships. And, for 10 years beginning in 1998, the Station participated in a dual-enrollement program with the Indian River Community College (now IRSC) and the St. Lucie County School District to offer three courses in marine science to high school juniors and seniors.

Research by resident SMS scientists expanded in 2001 with the addition of a second resident investigator funded by the Florida Marine Research Institute, a part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2002, former director Mary Rice retired to emeritus research scientist status, and Valerie Paul assumed the leadership role at the Station and became the third resident scientist.

Despite the addition of other programs, the emphasis of SMS as a field station for marine research by visiting Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues has continued. Proposals for research submitted each year from non-resident Smithsonian scientists and by prospective postdoctoral fellows are now evaluated and funded through the Smithsonian Marine Science Network.

In addition to the research based in Florida, in October 2009 the Station assumed logistical and administrative management of the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program based at the Carrie Bow Cay Field Station on the Meso-American Barrier Reef in Belize, insuring the continuation of another important base for Smithsonian marine research.



In 2001, the Station took a giant step forward in the realm of public outreach and education with the opening on August 27th of the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit (SMEE) at the St. Lucie County Marine Center at 420 Seaway Drive. The opening of the Exhibit was truly a collaborative community effort. SMS provides, maintains, and develops the exhibits, but St. Lucie County owns and maintains the building that houses them. Other initial contributors included the City of Fort Pierce, Indian River Community College (now IRSC), St. Lucie County School District, Fort Pierce Utilities Authority, Florida Power and Light, South Florida Water Management District, and the St. Johns River Water Management District, as well as several businesses and individuals from the community.


Development of the physical facilities of the SMS campus has kept pace with the growth of its programs. In 2000, friends and family of SMS supporter Robert Rodman, provided funds for a pavilion that was immediately put to use as a greeting station and outdoor adjunct classroom. In 2004, a 2,400 square foot storage building was built behind the Phase I laboratory, and a dock on the Indian River Lagoon was completed. In 2006, a 1,000 square foot aquarium building with a running seawater system for maintenance of marine organisms was added.

Rodman Pavilion Storage Building Dock Wet Laboratory
Rodman Pavilion Storage Building Smithsonian Dock Wet Laboratory

The need for additional visitor housing and for increased laboratory space exists. However, support for the remaining phases of development of the site, including a 25,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art building to house marine laboratories and administration, will require a fund-raising effort and/or gifts by interested donors.

Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce
701 Seaway Drive, Fort Pierce, Florida 34949
Phone 772-462-6220, Fax 772-461-8154

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