Angle: Cedar Key’s ‘MacGyver’ keeps science afloat

Immediately after planting thousands of plugs of marsh grasses along G Street in Cedar Key, the scientists made their first discovery: No rain in the forecast for eight days, a real threat for plants getting established.

Fortunately, they knew a guy who could bring rain faster than that.

Captain Kenny McCain is a fifth-generation Cedar Key resident with no science degree. What makes him an essential member of the scientific team at the Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) as its boat captain is his knowledge of local conditions and resources. His knack for improvisation has earned him the nickname “MacGyver,” for the 1980s television character with a genius for inventive use of common items.

The scientists brought their predicament to McCain. Losing the plants would set back by months their research into whether a living shoreline would protect the community better than a seawall would.

McCain thought over the problem and disappeared. About an hour later he returned—driving the city fire department’s water tanker, complete with a water cannon mounted on the front bumper. He watered the plants in half an hour.

Public science depends on just this kind of community involvement. McCain is, among other things, a volunteer in the Cedar Key Fire Department. All he had to do to borrow the tanker was call his friend the chief and ask.

Similarly, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), which runs NCBS, could not have built a three-mile-long artificial reef for important research on estuary water quality without local expertise.

In fact, it was local oystermen who suggested that reefs probably helped keep fresh water near the coast to make a good estuarine environment. The grit and skill of local boat captains was indispensable in getting a loaded 90-foot barge into a precise position with less than a foot of water under the keel and surgically placing rock into inky black water.

McCain is one of many residents of Cedar Key who have partnered with UF/IFAS on the science of restoring and conserving one of the longest stretches of undeveloped coastline in the nation.

McCain’s support earned him an employee of the year award from UF/IFAS. We have nearly 2,400 employees statewide. McCain is one of 21 employees we’ll recognize at a ceremony in Gainesville on March 15 in what we call our Superior Accomplishment Awards.

I often tell agricultural audiences that part of our job at UF/IFAS is to help our stakeholders make money. This is no less true in natural resources work. Part of the NCBS mission is to contribute to keeping Nature Coast communities as working waterfronts.

To this end, we employ locals like McCain among our team of 18 at NCBS. Last year we honored another local who works at NCBS, Cassandra Key, as among our finest employees. And our science drives the local clamming industry and supports the fishing business. The mini-aquarium and touch tank in the lobby has become a popular tourist site, supporting another pillar of the local economy.

We depend on locals to keep us relevant. Without the input of people who will continue to live in a community long after a given research project is completed, we can’t even be sure we’re working on the problems they seek solutions for.

McCain impresses students, visitors and scientists with his knowledge of local history and his charisma as a raconteur while piloting them to Seahorse Key. He’s saved NCBS untold tens of thousands of dollars in repairs by solving small problems so our scientists can focus on solving big ones. MacGyver indeed.

Public science doesn’t just mean publicly funded science. It means public participation. McCain embodies a community’s embrace of science, and scientists’ embrace of the real experts in local communities—the people who live there.

Congratulations, Captain Kenny.

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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