Feature Story                                                August 2014

Meet Visiting Scientist Flavio Da Costa Fernandes, an Enthusiastic Student and Teacher

By Monaca Noble

Dr. Fernandes collecting mud crabs on Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Flavio Da Costa Fernandes is an accomplished oceanographer and marine biologist from Brazil working on mussels, invasive species and ballast water. He has both a Masters and Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of São Paulo (CV and Bio), and he works for the Brazilian Navy's Admiral Paulo Moreira Marine Research Institute (IEAPM, Instituto de Estudos do Mar Almirante Paulo Moreira). He came to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) as a visiting scientist for six months to gather information about SERC’s ballast water program with hopes of building a similar program in Brazil.

The Navy in Brazil has many different roles. In addition to national defense, they are the coast guard, maritime authority, and healthcare provider to people living in Amazonia, delivering doctors and dentists to remote areas by ship. They also operate several research institutes, like the Admiral Paulo Moreira Marine Research Institute, that conducts research on the marine environment. The Navy regulates ballast water and is responsible for protecting Brazil’s marine environment from invasive species.

“I was 19 years old when I started there [IEAPM], very young. I didn’t know exactly what I should do in my life. But I was sure that I should teach, teach anything. I had to teach and had to talk to people, [to tell them] what I think is correct in terms of behavior, in terms of thoughts. Science can provide a lot of opportunities to learn and to teach. I think this is the most important reason to be so happy in my profession.”

Dr. Fernandes is the head of the Biological Group at the Institute. This group includes three divisions: biofouling (hull fouling and fouling paints), fisheries and marine resources, and marine ecosystems. The marine ecosystems division includes ballast water, invasive species, and monitoring radionuclides. Radionuclide monitoring is one phase in the development of nuclear submarines. Dr. Fernandes is involved in many projects within the Biological Group, but is most passionate about his research on mussels, invasive species, and ballast water.

“I think that ballast water invasive species is the most important subject that I do there. I do other monitoring there, but I try to use the other projects to study the invasive species.”


Dr. Fernandes became interested in invasive species early in his career after the discovery of a new species of clam (Isognomon bicolor) on the beach while on a field trip with his students. He was teaching marine biology at a local university at the time. Today there are more than 60 species of marine organisms (invertebrates, bacteria, phytoplankton and zooplankton) that have been identified as introduced in Brazil, many discovered and published by Dr. Fernandes and his colleagues at the Institute. Interestingly, one species that he identified as introduced was the brown mussel, Perna perna, which he had studied for years without knowing that it was introduced, but that is a story for another article. 

Upon discovering an introduced clam on the beach: “What is this? This is a strange one, I’ve never seen this!”


Dr. Fernandes visited SERC in 1999 to learn more about our research on ballast water and the development of the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse (NBIC), established in 1997. Now, 15 years later, Dr. Fernandes was invited to collaborate with NBIC researchers on ballast water analyses, incorporating data from Brazil and the United States. Although spending six months away from his life and family in Brazil was difficult, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to come to SERC.

“I was here, in SERC, 15 years ago, because I knew that SERC already was the best institution in the world working with the ballast water. In that time [1999] ballast water [research] was at the very beginning, no one was worried about doing research on ballast water. It was something strange. Ballast water? No, [ballast water was] something for the ships, for engineers, not biologists. Belonging to the Navy, I had to be a researcher in ballast water.”

Much like the NBIC at SERC, the Brazilian Navy collects ballast water reporting data for vessels arriving to Brazilian ports. The US and Brazilian ballast water reporting forms are almost identical. In Brazil since 2005, ships have been required to exchange their ballast water at least 50 nautical miles (nmi) from the coast (200nmi, if possible) in water at least 200m deep (summary of regulations). An additional exchange is also required to reduce the salinity of tanks to be discharged in the Amazon Basin. Ships report to the Navy how much ballast water they intend to discharge, where that water was taken onboard, and whether or not it was managed through ballast water exchange. Dr. Fernandes used some of these data to compare the ballast water discharge patterns of ships arriving to Brazil from the United States (2013) and ships arriving to the United State from Brazil (NBIC data from 2006-2014). Through this analysis he hopes to discover possible routes of invasion that will lead to better invasive species management both here and in Brazil.

However, the primary focus of his work during this six month visit is the development of a database for ballast water reports that are submitted to the Brazilian Navy. For the last several years a small group in Dr. Fernandes’ lab has managed the data. Prior to his recent visit to SERC, some of those data were being warehoused rather than organized and analyzed, mainly due to lack of funding. His work here aims to change that through the development of an advanced ballast water database for Brazil that will greatly improve the Brazilian ballast water program.

As often happens with great collaborations, many other ideas for joint projects over the coming years between SERC and the Admiral Paulo Moreira Marine Research Institute were enthusiastically discussed, and we hope to hear more about those projects in the next several months.

“You asked me, what do you like about your career? I love to go abroad, to see how they think, how people, like you, think about all these things; I like that, to learn and to teach later. To learn how the different cultures are thinking. This is the main reason to be so comfortable, so happy, so excited, about my career, is the opportunity to learn, I like that, to teach, and to visit. As a biologist, as researcher, as a scientist we have the opportunity to go to these meetings, in everywhere. I think I’ve been to more than 35 countries in the world. This is good, this is something good.”


Dr. Fernandes is an enthusiastic researcher who clearly loves his career as a scientist and teacher. He is a “people person" and we all enjoyed spending time talking with him and learning about his research, about Brazil, and his thoughts on life in general. He has a great sense of humor and it was a joy to host both him and his wife Heloisa. Heloisa was a wonderful guest of our group as well, as she is also a scientist, and was excited to help process samples for our lab in her free time. Check out the shoreline blog for more about Heloisa’s work. They returned to Brazil in early July, but we trust this will not be the last time we hear from them.

 Dr. Fernades and his wife Heloisa enjoy a canoe trip in Muddy Creek. Photos by Michele Repetto.