Category Archives: On the Reef

Dr. David Kimbro studies predator-prey relationships in the oyster reefs and salt marshes of Florida’s Gulf coast.


What’s the deal with nutrients and oysters?

As David & co. start their new research on the Apalachicola oyster fishery crisis, He and Randall (and their colleagues in Georgia and North Carolina) are starting to wrap up the NSF funded oyster study that we have been following over the last couple of years.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that research through a series of videos.  We’ll cover some oyster basics (how does an animal with no brain behave?), explore David and Randall’s ideas on the role of fear on the oyster reef (what makes a mud crab too afraid to eat an oyster?), and see the day-to-day problem solving and ingenuity it takes to complete a major study.  As these videos are released, we’ll also keep tabs on the work being done in Apalachicola Bay, in which many of the same methods will be used.
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

After all, nutrients are basically plant food and oysters are animals.  And how could too few nutrients coming down with the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River possibly explain the record low number of Apalachicola oysters?

This is the perfect time to use the favorite idiom of my former mentor Dr. Ted, “The long and the short of it is….”

The short of it: Plants love nutrients and sunlight as much as I like pizza and beer. But unlike my favorite foods, these plant goodies make plants grow fast and strong. This works out well for us because we all need nutrients for basic body functioning, and because we get them by eating plants and/or by the eating animals that previously consumed plants.

For our filter-feeding bivalve brethren, they get nutrients and energy by eating plant-like cells (phytoplankton) that float in the water. So, it is possible that the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River is bringing too few nutrients to support the size of the pizza buffet to which the Apalachicola oysters are accustomed. But this idea has yet to be tested.

Hanna Garland and Stephanie Buhler harvest oysters from sample reefs in Apalachicola Bay.

The long of it: Long before the flow of the Apalachicola River slowed to a trickle, there weren’t a lot of nutrients. That’s why the numbers of humans used to be so low: too few nutrients meant too few plants and other animals for us to eat.

How could this possibly be the case given that 78% of the air we breathe is made up of a very important plant nutrient, nitrogen? And there is a lot of air out there!

Well, only a precious few plants exist that can deal with the nitrogen in our air and these are called nitrogen-fixers. Think of these as single-lane, windy, and bumpy dirt roads. In order to help create a plant buffet for all of us animals, a lot of atmospheric nitrogen (bio-unavailable) has to travel down this very slow road that the n-fixers maintain. As a result, it naturally takes a long time for the land to become fertile enough for a large buffet. And, it only takes a couple of crop plantings to wipe out this whole supply of bio-available nitrogen that took so long to accumulate.

guano island

Sea birds on a guano island off the coast of Peru. (

Turns out that the ancient Inca civilization around Peru was not only lucky, but they were also pretty darn smart. Lucky, because they lived next to coastal islands that were basically big piles of bird poop, which is very rich in bio-available nitrogen. I’m talking thousands of years of pooping on the same spot! Smart, because they somehow figured out that spreading this on their fields by-passed that slow n-fixing road and allowed them to grow lots of food. Once Columbus tied the world together, lots of bird poop was shipped back to European farms for the same reason. That’s when the European population of humans sky-rocketed.

Turns out that humans in general are pretty smart. Through time, some chemists figured out how to create artificial bird poop, which we now cheaply dump a lot of on our farming land. So, in these modern days, we are very, very rich in bio-available nutrients.

Where am I going with the long of it? Well, on the one hand, these nutrients wash off into rivers and then float down into estuaries. This is how the phytoplankton that oysters eat can benefit from our solution to the slow n-fixing road. In turn, oysters thrive on this big phytoplankton buffet.

Slide by Ashley R. Smyth, Piehler Lab, UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.

But, on the other hand, too much of these nutrients flowing down into our estuaries can create big problems. Every year, tons of nutrient-rich water makes it way down the Mississippi and into the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters. There, this stuff fuels one big time buffet of phytoplankton, which goes unconsumed. Once these guys live their short lives, they sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria. All this bacterial activity decreases the oxygen of water and in turn gives us the infamous dead zone. Because nutrient-rich run-off continues to increase every year, so too does the dead zone.

I’ll close with the thought that oysters themselves may help keep the phytoplankton buffet from getting out of control by acting like anti-nitrogen fixers. In other words, they may help convert an excess of useable nitrogen back into bio-unavailable nitrogen. While this might not have been a great thing to have in low nutrient situations, we currently live in a nutrient-rich era. What’s even cooler is that it all has to do with poop again! But this time, we are talking oyster poop.

Oyster Summit 6

Dr. Mike Piehler, presenting to his collaborators Dr. Jeb Byers (Right), Dr. Jon Grabowski (reclined on couch), Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro (out of frame). These five researchers have worked on oyster reef ecology since their time at the University of North Carolina. Three years ago, the National Science Foundation funded research into their ideas about predators and fear on oyster reefs.

So does this really happen? Yes. Check out an earlier post for the details. But we don’t fully understand it and that’s why it is a major focus of our research. Our collaborator, Dr. Michael Piehler of UNC-Chapel Hill, is leading this portion of our research project. Read more of Dr. Piehler’s work on this topic here.

So, hopefully this post explains why the relationship between nutrients and oysters is not so simple. But it sure is interesting and a worthy thing to keep studying!


In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

Notes From the Field: Becoming an Oyster Woman

Stephanie Buhler is the newest addition to the Hug-Bro family (the HUGhes and KimBRO labs).  She and Hanna Garland have been alternating Scuba diving duties for David Kimbro’s new Apalachicola Bay study.  Stephanie was nice enough to let us strap a GoPro camera to her head as she dove, allowing us to capture images of the floor of the bay.  The images give an indication as to the severity of the fishery crisis. We will continue following this study. Tomorrow, we begin a series of videos looking at David and Randall Hughes’ NSF funded oyster study. Over the course of that research, they honed many of the techniques they’re using in Apalachicola Bay. The videos will take you into that study, and into the lives of oysters and the animals that make use of the reef.

This post was written on Sunday, January 20, 2013.
Stephanie Buhler FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Today marks our sixth day out in the Apalachicola Bay surveying the oyster reefs. It could not have been a more beautiful Sunday with the sun shining bright and a crisp-cool breeze as we drove to our first reef. While Hanna and I definitely have our methods down to a routine at this point, today we had the opportunity to learn a “new” technique for grabbing oysters that did not require a single regulator. This morning our boat captain, Shawn Hartsfield, brought his oyster tongs on the boat for us, and we had a blast trying to get his method down for picking up the oysters.  Comically, he did not inform us that the metal tongs alone were about 40 lbs. as he watched our attempts in bringing our bundle of oysters to the bow of the boat. Best back and arm work out I have ever had!

Bringing the tongs onboard could not have happened on a more relaxed day.  Typically Hanna and I alternate days being the boat tender/diver, but today all of our reefs were extremely shallow and no dive equipment or assistance was needed. A fantastic hassle-free Sunday of work.

Hanna harvests oysters in shallow water.

The Apalachicola Bay study is funded by Florida Sea Grant.  In the Grass, On the Reef is Funded by the National Science Foundation.


New Study Tackles Apalachicola Oyster Fishery Crisis

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150Last Thursday morning, an oyster boat departed East Point and disappeared into the fog.  Despite the crisis level lack of oysters in Apalachicola Bay, you can still see several boats working for what little is left.  That’s not what this boat was doing, however.  It was carrying two divers working for David Kimbro out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.  A foggy day is appropriate for the first day of a research study. All of the knowledge is out there, just like the St. George Bridge or the island beyond it are out beyond one’s field of vision.  Eventually the sun comes out and everything is revealed.

They’ll need a little more than the sun to reveal the specifics of the oyster crisis.  It’s easy enough to say that the record low flow of the Apalachicola River combined with harvesting pressure to decimate the reefs.  But the forces at work are a little more nuanced than that.  That’s why newly hired lab technician Stephanie Buhler and graduate student Hanna Garland are plunging into the murky waters of the bay and monitoring up to 20 sites within it for a Florida Seagrant funded project.  The techniques they use will resemble those used by David and his colleague Dr. Randall Hughes in the NSF funded oyster reef study that we have been following over the last two-and-a-half years.  The reefs they’ve worked on for that project were exposed at low tide.  These are not, and so they’ll be diving.  I’m curious to see how it goes in March, when they construct experiment cages on the floor of the bay.

From left to right- Shawn Hartsfield, their captain; Stephanie Buhler; and Alex Chequer, FSU’s Dive Safety Officer. Alex went along on the first day to ensure that all of their dive equipment was operating safely.

One thing they’ll look at with the cages is the interaction between oysters and one of their predators.  So, alongside the environmental data they’ll accumulate- salinity, availability of plankton and nutrients, oyster recruitment (new generations of oysters growing on the reef)- they will look at how the crown conch is affecting oysters in the bay.  If you think it’s as simple “they’re just eating them all,” there’s a chance you might be right.  But what David and Randall have found is that the fear of being eaten can be even more powerful than just removing an oyster.  For a creature with no brain, oysters exhibit behavior and can be influenced by fear.  In a couple of weeks, we’ll have a series of videos chronicling their pursuit of this idea over the last couple of years to see, in David’s words, “Does it matter?”  It’ll be interesting to see how those dynamics might be at play here, where the higher salinity has invited a larger number of oyster consumers.

Another way this study is different from the NSF study is that one end result will be a recommendation as to how the resource is managed.  David’s other collaborator on this project, Dr. J. Wilson White, will develop an Integral Projection Model for the reefs.  Essentially they will take the data collected over the next few months and use it to project how the reef will do in different scenarios.  Those scenarios will depend on the amount of water that flows down the Apalachicola River, which in 2012 was at an all time low.  In these drought conditions, water is low across the entire Apalachicola/ Chattahootchee/ Flint basin.  The basin is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, whose Master Water Control Manual gives priority to stakeholders in the rivers upstream of the Apalachicola.  That Manual is being updated, and Monday is the last day that they are taking public comment on it.  You can lend your voice to that discussion here.

Have you submitted comments to the Army Corps? Would you mind sharing what you wrote? Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.


The Story of 2012

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

I love how David’s story evolves in the segment above.  At first, he concentrates on the oysters and their point of view in the Apalachicola fishery crisis.  It’s the biological approach.  After workshopping his story with Randy Olson, his story takes on a different aspect.  It’s about why he’s getting involved.  It’s the personal approach.  The story is still about David and his colleagues studying the reefs in Apalachicola Bay to determine how best to rehabilitate them, but the hook is different.  It’s one of the stories we’ll be following in what should be another busy year on In the Grass, On the Reef.

Before we look forward to 2013, though, I wanted to look at the stories that made 2012 our busiest year to date:

Funded by the NSF

It took a couple of years, but in July we received a Communicating Research to Public Audiences grant from the National Science Foundation.  The name of that grant is meaningful, and it embodies a background narrative of this project: the work it takes to make an average person care about scientific research.  Researchers know why their work is important, they just don’t always know how to present why it’s interesting.  That’s why we had Dr. Olson come in and put on a workshop for research students (and Randall and David).  So why is Randall and David’s research important?

Ecology is Economy

In short, biology affects people’s livelihoods.  The seafood connection is obvious: over 90% of the species that are commercially fished in the Gulf of Mexico spend some part of their life cycles in one of the three estuarine habitats that we follow: oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds.  We saw that oysters offer more to the seafood industry than their meat.  And we’re starting to see the effects of a full-scale ecosystem failure on a community (more on that below).  The non-seafood related benefits were surprising to me.  A rugby field sized patch of salt marsh can save $8,000 in storm surge related property damage.  Seagrass beds are the most effective habitat at storing carbon from the atmosphere.  And in a state as reliant on tourism dollars as Florida, you can’t overlook the ecotourism potential of our coastlines.  Last spring, we went down to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge when migratory shore birds were making their way through.  The refuge’s vast salt marshes are an all-you-can-eat buffet for those birds, and you have to figure that without healthy rivers and coasts, our state’s multi-billion dollar wildlife watching revenue would be imperiled.

Away from the coasts, I enjoyed exploring the geology of the Aucilla Sinks and the rare plants of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  The Buffer is part of the Apalachicola River basin, and those plants rely on that water just as the oysters in the bay do.  Which brings us to:

The Apalachicola Crisis

Apalachicola Oysters on the Half Shell

Earlier that afternoon, oystermen were demonstrating how few oysters there were in Apalachicola Bay for the Army Corps of Engineers. At a reception later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they shucked oysters for community members. Despite doubling in price over the last year, there aren't enough oysters to maintain the fishery.

At this time last year, when we were waiting to hear whether we got the NSF grant, I was looking forward to some of the things we would do.  I knew that, as we explored the economic benefits of oysters, I would end up on an oyster boat.  It would be fun to watch tongs bring up mounds of succulent Apalachicola oysters.  My first time on an oyster boat didn’t exactly go that way.  As the year wore on, I started planning for RiverTrek 2012.  That was every bit as amazing an experience as I expected it to be, but Helen Light’s presentation on the state of the basin that first night underscored everything that happened after.  Crisis drives a lot of media coverage; it attracts viewers.  I don’t think Apalachicola needs crisis to be interesting, though.  I first visited in 2002 while working on WFSU’s Our Town series.  Each Our Town episode first aired during a pledge drive, and Our Town: Apalachicola was far and away the most successful, with over 50 new members pledging their support to our station.  And it was my favorite.  A couple of months after we premiered it at the Dixie Theatre, I came back for my birthday.  My wife and I camped out on St. George Island, went across the bay to get oysters and had drinks at the Gibson Inn.  So this isn’t the story I wanted to tell.  But there is something to be learned from this about oyster reef ecology and our connection to it.

As David and his crew gear up to investigate more closely, that story will continue here.  Also, Randall and David’s two multi-year, NSF funded studies are concluding.  They put their ideas to the test:  Does the fear of being eaten by large predators have a significant effect on coastal ecosystems and all that they give us?  And, it’s a word we hear a lot, but what role does biodiversity play in the success of a salt marsh and its services?  Stay tuned.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.


Lab Creations Catalog: Some Holiday Gift Ideas

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Shopping for gifts this winter? May I suggest one of these unique Kimbro Lab inventions, available for a limited time:


The Aquaclaw:

Debuted by technician Evan after conveniently breaking his hand before a long stint of marine field work, this dual glove and zip tie hybrid can protect a non-removable cast from seawater and spray, while allowing for finger mobility and dexterity. Lightweight and available in an array of fashionable colors. (Not waterproof when fully submerged.)



Decopod Extracto-Bar

Need to extract stone crabs from their burrows, but worried about losing a finger? Try out Evan’s latest invention for prying stubborn crustaceans from their subterranean homes. Forged of the highest quality rebar available, this tool is optimally angled for maximum crab-removal effectiveness. Highly durable, with antique rust finish and a handle for increased leverage.



These stunning olive-green pendants are artfully fashioned by Tanya from leftover quantities of our favorite marine epoxy. Monofilament chain included. Inquire about her complete line of z-spar jewelry and sculpture. Custom pieces available.


Happy Holidays!

We hope you enjoyed this last little bit of fun for the year.  When we come back in 2013, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro get serious about animal behavior.  The consequences of oyster, crab, and conch behavior could mean life or death, or life in fear.  And as research begins in the decimated oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay, they’ll put their theories about predators to the test.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.


Split the Difference: Applied vs. Basic Science

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Looking over the catch

Shannon Hartsfield and Colonel Donald Jackson of the Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division look over their catch during an oystering demonstration at Cat Point Bar. This demonstration was meant to show the problems caused by low fresh water input into the bay. Below, David talks about starting to work towards a possible solution.

Tonight on WFSU-TV’s Dimensions program, watch Part 2 of RiverTrek 2012.  Tune in at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV. In case you missed it, you can watch Part 1 of RiverTrek 2012 here

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Spread offense or Power-I formation? Man-to-Man or Zone defense? Austerity or Stimulus spending? And most importantly, Batman or Batgirl?

Whether leading a team of athletes or a population of countrymen, deciders frequently confront such either-or decisions or binary outcomes (i.e., yes or no).

Because time is one of our most limiting resources, natural scientists confront such a dilemma right out of the gate: should I pursue Applied or Basic scientific research?

By applied, I mean research that focuses on immediate solutions to societal problems: How can we deal with a new infectious disease (e.g., avian flu)? Where did the BP oil go?

By basic, I mean research that focuses on improving our knowledge about the nuances of the natural world: How many galaxies are there in the observable universe and how were they formed (I just saw a must-see iMax movie, Hubble 3D, at the JFK Space Center Visitor Complex)? Why is biodiversity so much greater in the tropics?

Flashing back to my childhood hero, I realize that Michael Jordan will likely remain the best basketball player to ever play not solely because of his offense (which was certainly top tier), but also because he worked relentlessly to become a top-tier defender as well. Obviously, few people can master both sides of a spectrum, and sometimes a focus on both or on splitting the difference can come with great cost. For example, my favorite college football team (UNC) is implementing a hybrid defense (i.e., a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3 or a 3-4) this year; we LOST 68-50 this last Saturday…in FOOTBALL!

Because my plans for playing in the NBA and NFL obviously aren’t working out, let’s get back to science and the merits of focusing on both ends of the science spectrum.

Recently, I talked about this topic with a leading research and clinical Psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Thomas Joiner. Ignorantly, I thought FSU was only great in Football…turns out that they also have the best Psychology department in the nation. In a recent book Lonely at the Top, Dr. Joiner weaved together many interesting and Basic research studies to show how gender and evolutionary forces cause nuanced interactions all the way from neurons and one’s health to one’s social behavior. It was fascinating to learn how these interactions can promote the loneliness that facilitates suicides.

But while all of these powerful connections lined up well for the main argument of his book, I am equally interested by a conversation we recently shared together about there being many applied problems that can’t wait around for further testing of nuanced ideas. For instance, Dr. Joiner recently began working with the US military to study and reduce the causes of suicide within the military. As Dr. Joiner indicated, the military probably couldn’t give a darn about Basic research findings. They just want some realistic solutions and they want them yesterday.

If you stuck it out this far, you are probably wondering, “how does this relate to oysters, predators, etc.?” Well, the motivation of my Basic research is to increase our knowledge about how predators keep the lights on for many of the natural systems that we depend on like oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds. But in pursuing this research over the past three years, I have confronted a very important applied problem that needs immediate solutions: the oyster fishery of Apalachicola, Florida presently contains too few oysters to support the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here).

So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get to see whether my attempt to be like Mike (if you’ve seen my vertical leap, it’s obvious we’re talking research and not b-ball), to emulate the approach of Dr. Joiner, and to split the Applied–Basic difference is a success or a bust. I’ll be working with a lot of good researchers (Florida Sea Grant, UF Oyster Recovery Task Force), state organizations – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)- and the local community to examine the following:

David accompanies FDACS on a sampling trip in Apalachicola Bay as part of a new collaboration.

(1) How in the heck do you work in such a large and logistically challenging system?

(2) What is the extent of the problem…how far gone is the resource?

(3) After getting some research under our belts, what our some realistic options to this problem?

(4) Because we all want answers to these questions yesterday, can we explore the existing data, which was impressively collected by FDACS for the past 30 years, to get a head start?

Finally, I suspect that this Applied perspective may help inform the merits of my Basic interests. There are a ton of things that could be contributing to the failure of the oyster fishery such as climate change, drought, fresh-water extraction, over-harvesting, disease, nutrient inputs, and water quality. Whether or not any of our predator ideas help explain the lost of this fishery represents a very big test. In other words, relative to other explanations, is all of this predator stuff really important?

Ok, as the locals along the Forgotten Coast say “let’s get’er done”.


Take the RiverTrek 2012 photo tour down the Apalachicola River. You can zoom in and scroll across the map for greater detail. Later we’ll post a map with more of the basin and bay as well, from our other EcoAdventures in the area (River Styx, Graham Creek, etc.). Also, many of the locations are approximate. We did not geotag the location of every houseboat on the river, but the photos do show up in the same general vicinity (with the exception of more recognized landmarks such as Sand Mountain, Alum Bluff, etc.).

Related Links

For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.



The Benefits of Coastal Living

This fall we’ve been looking at the ecosystem services provided by the various habitats, whether it’s the food it provides us or the protection they provide us from storm surge. Merely living near the coast and its natural habitats can be beneficial.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

I love the coast, and I especially love living along the coast. Seeing the ocean daily gives me a definite sense of peace, even when the water itself is not very peaceful. This good feeling appears to be shared by others – a study out of England found that people living near the coast reliably report that they are healthier than people of similar age, gender, etc., who live farther inland. The exact cause of this increased health (or increased feeling of health) isn’t entirely clear – it may be that people living along the coast are more physically active than their inland counterparts, or it may be that they have reduced stress levels. But the pattern suggests that there is a health benefit to living near the ocean.

Of course there are myriad reasons that people live near the coast, including job opportunities, abundant natural resources, culture, and climate. I’m thankful that my career as a marine ecologist ensures that I will always live somewhat near the ocean! And I am certainly not alone. Many people worldwide live in coastal areas – a whopping 44% of the global population live within 95 miles (150km) of the ocean, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans. That’s 44% of 6.8 billion people, and that’s a lot!

And herein lies something of a dilemma – how can we ensure that people can live near the coast and take advantage of the many economic and personal benefits of coastal ecosystems without harming the ecosystems themselves and losing those benefits? Or the even more vexing problem of one group of people taking advantage of the ecosystems and causing OTHER PEOPLE to lose the benefits of those ecosystems? (We don’t have to go far for an example of this latter issue – just think of the effects of upstream water diversions in the Apalachicola River system on the downstream oyster fishermen.)

That’s when we need good, creative, dedicated people. People who work to strike a balance between the desire to develop coastal areas with the need to preserve and conserve these same areas. People like Pat Hamilton, featured in the video. Because if you don’t protect coastal ecosystems like oyster reefs, marshes, and seagrass beds, then you can lose a lot of the benefits that we derive from the coast, including productive fisheries, outdoor recreational opportunities, erosion control, storm protection, and water quality. And if you do protect them, you can even increase the value of the surrounding areas – for instance, a study by researchers at North Carolina State University found that homes in urban areas that were within 1/2 a mile to a wildlife refuge were worth 7-9% more than homes away from these wilderness areas.

Our region of the Big Bend of Florida is unique in that significant tracts of undeveloped coastal areas remain. As people continue to discover all that this region has to offer and the desire to develop the coast increases, I hope that David and my research will help inform ways to strike that balance between both using and protecting important coastal ecosystems.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Add your question or comment.

The River, the Bay, and the Army Corps of Engineers

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay

Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure.  Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET.  The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.

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The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become.  We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar.  Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay.  In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up.  The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters.  Only this year, it didn’t happen.

Colonel Donald Jackson receives oystering tips from Shannon Hartsfield.

Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson.  Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight.  Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters.  This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see.  The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams.  The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis.  The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.

The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers.  But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here).  It’s messy.  And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.  As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol.  A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.

This slide provided by Helen Light (©USGS) illustrates the floodplain supported by the river. As water levels have decreased over the last few decades, there has been a loss of 4 million trees in the floodplain and a loss of aquatic habitat.

During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin.  The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight.  My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it.  As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.”  That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river.  She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades.  I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river.  Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.

For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle.  The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes.  We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it.  For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products.  There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin.  And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay,  there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.  As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.


Oyster reefs. Huh! What are they good for!

Episode 4: The Hidden Value of an Oyster Reef

Weeks ago, we came up with a schedule for posts and videos and somehow had our video on oysters due for the week after Governor Scott declared this year’s oyster harvest a failure.  This led to one minor alteration in the above video, but the video was meant as an overview to the services provided by oyster reefs.  There will be content related specifically to Apalachicola Bay in the coming weeks.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150IGOR chip- filtration 150IGOR chip- sedimentation 150

There are a lot of things that a marine scientist can study such as charismatic animals (dolphin and turtles) or the waves and currents that fuel my surfing addiction. So, why do I spend most of my time mucking around in mud to study the uncharismatic oyster?

Short answer: because they can provide the foundation for a lot of things that we depend on. Now, some of these benefits or services are obvious and many others aren’t.

Let’s start with the obvious. Just like raising cattle supports tons of jobs and our appetite for hamburgers (I recommend reading Omnivores Dilemma if you want to see how eating meat can be environmentally friendly), the harvesting of oysters financially supports many folks as well as the scrumptious past time of tasting oysters on the half shell as the above video just showed me doing at my local favorite, the Indian Pass Raw Bar!

Unfortunately, the importance of this service was made all to clear to us when the Florida governor recently declared this year’s harvest to be a failure and applied for federal relief for the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here). It’s also unfortunate that this type of bad news has a history of indicating that this natural resource is in trouble and that more trouble may be on the way. To see why, check out a study by Dr. Michael Kirby that showed how this service progressively collapsed from New England down to Florida over the past three centuries. In a nutshell, the pattern of collapse mirrors the increasing number of humans that have over-used this service.

But even if there are no questions about the importance and collapse of the previous service, many folks are asking great questions about whether oysters provide other important services in the form of protected reefs that may offset or exceed their commercial/restaurant value. In other words, what good are oysters to us if they don’t make their way to the raw bar?

A sand flat oyster reef in 2002

An oyster reef built by Dr. Jon Grabowski and Dr. Randall Hughes in 1997, pictured in 2002.

Well, my good buddy Dr. Grabowski’s research used relatively tiny oyster reefs to highlight one less obvious service that involves reefs really ramping up the numbers of commercially and recreationally important fishes (drum) and crabs (stone crabs and blue crabs)….yum!  Given that the oyster reefs used to be 12 feet tall and as long as football fields, can you imagine how many crabs and fishes hung around those really big reefs way back then? Heck, even I could have caught a fish!

Another thing that charismatic and good tasting animals need in order to keep our eyes and tummies happy is some healthy coastal water. Having too much plant-like material (phytoplankton) floating around in the water, sinking to the bottom, and decaying can deplete all of the water’s oxygen. Because such a place is very uninviting for lots of sea life, low oxygen areas will not have many animals that are pleasing to the eye, the fishing rod, or our palette.

Columbia River Water Diatoms

Diatoms, single celled phytoplankton. © Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Enter the filter-feeding oyster.

While it’s hard to know if today’s tiny amount of oysters reefs sufficiently filter enough water, we do know that the really big reefs of our grandparents and their grandparents time were essentially like huge skimmers in swimming pools as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

As the ESPN football talking heads like to say: C’mon Man! Really?

I kid you not, because Jeremy Jackson and colleagues dug through some Chesapeake mud to figure this out for us. Preserved in the mud is stuff that settled out from the water over time, with deeper mud containing older stuff and shallower mud containing newer stuff. It turns out that as we over-ate and turned the larger oyster reefs into small ones, the stuff in the mud transitioned from sings of healthy water to symptoms of unhealthy water. And because the oyster crashes came before the drop in water quality, it’s more likely that oysters maintained the good water signs as opposed to the reverse scenario of the good water signs maintaining the big oyster reefs.

So this points to a third type of service that oyster reefs CAN provide in the form of water-quality. Admittedly, it’s hard to put a dollar amount on that as opposed to the dollar amount that a dozen raw oysters brings in at a raw bar.

But another less obvious way that oysters can help maintain water quality is by removing the nutrients that a lot of the unwanted phytoplankton depend on.

C’mon Man!

Slide by Ashley R. Smyth, Piehler Lab, UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.

You see, after oysters suck in the water, filter out their preferred phytoplankton (some are good, but some probably taste as bad as my poor attempt of making southern biscuits), they eventually “poop” their waste out into the mud. Some of this waste makes all sorts of bacteria do all sorts of different things. One of these cool things involves taking a form of nitrogen (think fertilizer on your lawn) that is readily sucked up by nasty phytoplankton and converting it into a form that phytoplankton can’t use (think bad fertilizer that you want to return for a refund).  This is called de-nitrification, and it’s a way that oyster feeding and pooping can help maintain healthy coastal conditions. Even cooler, we can slap a dollar amount on it if we think about how much money it costs a waster-water treatment facility to remove the same amount of nitrogen. My buddy in North Carolina Dr. Mike Piehler did just a study and found that the value of this service is about 2,718.00 dollars per acre of oyster reef. And unlike a dozen raw oysters, this service keeps on giving like the energizer bunny.

Finally, and we are now at service 4 in case you are counting, oyster reefs can buffer the waves and storms that eat away at our shorelines, coastal roads, and homes.

Before signing off, I have to also acknowledge that not every oyster reef performs each of these services. Just like my brother and I look pretty darn similar to someone outside of my family, when you look closer, we are really different. Individual oyster reefs are the same way. Heck, while I can do different things well if you catch me in the morning with a cup of coffee, I often really stink at those same things if you check in with me after a too big and sleep-inducing lunch!

This point segues nicely into my research interest about the “context-dependency” of the obvious and not so obvious services that coastal habitats can provide. In other words, why are some reefs doing some services but others are not? This question really crystallizes the essence of a collaborative project that I’m working on with colleagues from FSU, Northeastern University, University of North Carolina, and University of Georgia.

In our crazy-fun, at times maddening, and democratic research team, we are testing whether the answer depends on differences in big hungry and scary predators like drum and crabs lurking around the reefs. Sure, some of these might eat an oyster that doesn’t make it on to my plate at the raw bar. But overall, they may benefit some reefs by eating a lot of the smaller crabs that really like to munch on oysters. And even if they don’t eat all of these oyster munchers, we’re thinking that their presence may sufficiently freak out oyster munchers so that they spend more time watching their backs and less time munching. Hence, the ecology of fear!

Thanks for wading through this long post. If I promise to write shorter posts in the future, then I hope you’ll follow our journey of testing whether predators help maintain services not only in oyster reefs, but also in the marshes and mudflats of the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coastlines.



In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Paddling for Oysters

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Apalachicola River water line

If you’re an oyster lover, this photo might concern you.  This was taken yesterday on a long paddle along the Apalachicola River.  Participants in this year’s Rivertrek fundraiser (click here for the website) were taking an eighteen mile warm up paddle in preparation for the five day adventure this October.  Then, we’ll be tackling the entirety of the River.   I snapped this photo about an hour after our lunch break, during the long part of our trip where I learned why stretching before paddling is so important.

For us, on this blog, it’s a matter of salinity.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average salinity of the ocean is 35 parts per thousand (ppt).  That’s 35 grams of salt dissolved in every thousand grams of water.  Oysters, like those in the famous Apalachicola Bay, can survive within a wide range of 5 ppt to 40 ppt.  Yet they thrive predominantly in fresher water.  Why is that?  It has to do with the organisms that affect the health of an oyster.  Oyster drills and stone crabs, both oyster consumers, cannot survive in less than 15 ppt salinity.  The oyster disease Dermo (Perkinsus marinus) thrives in 21-25 ppt.  That’s why successful reefs are typically found where a fresh water source meets the ocean, like where the Apalachicola River flows into Apalachicola Bay.  It’s also why that photo can be of concern: it marks the decrease in fresh water flowing along the Apalachicola and into the Bay (the line marks where water flow had been).  That decrease in flow has been a result of drought, but it serves as a reminder of the greater threat facing the River basin: the management of water north of the Woodruff Dam, and the amount let through to the river..

Houseboat on the Apalach

Houseboats and fishing/ hunting shacks were scattered along the river.  The sign on this one identified it as “The Redneck Yacht.”

This year will be the fourth year that the Rivertrek fundraiser will benefit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, who fight to keep water flowing at levels that benefit the dependent industries in the Bay and one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States.  This year, In the Grass, On the Reef will be along to provide daily snapshots of the journey.  From October 10 to October 14, we’ll have images of the trip and stories of each day’s trek.  Yesterday’s tuneup allowed me to experiment with how I wanted to shoot from a kayak using our waterproof cameras.  The image looks best when I get closer; the trick is not hitting the subject of my shot, whether it’s a cypress tree or another kayaker.  I also saw how best I could arrange my gear so that I could get my work done while paddling comfortably.  And I also got to know some of my fellow Trekkers.

Georgia cuts her finger on a fishing hookI had already known Georgia Ackerman and Rick Zelznak, owners of the Wilderness Way.  I will disclose that The Wilderness Way has been a WFSU underwriter, and had provided kayaks to the In the Grass, On the Reef project early on (Riverkeeper has also underwritten WFSU).  They provided us our kayaks yesterday as well, and will provide some for the Rivertrek paddle (including mine).  Georgia, ever passionate about our water ways, picked up trash along the river and ended up taking a fish hook to her finger.  Luckily, we were paddling with an ER nurse.

Eddie Lueken will be one of our crucial support crew during the trek, driving back and forth to bring us supplies and food.  One night, she’ll be making us machaca, a tasty sounding Mexican beef dish (with an accompanying bean dish for the vegetarian paddlers).  An Emergency Room nurse with a knack for story telling, she had us in stitches (no pun intended) with some of her stories.

Paddling together in a tandem kayak were Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson.  Jennifer is the other media member taking part in the Trek; she writes for the Tallahassee Democrat.  Chris will be one of the fundraisers- everyone on the trip except Jennifer and I have to get pledges.  He came with several detailed laminated maps of the river.  They were formidable in their tandem, often well ahead of us and scouting for the entrance to Owl Creek, where we ended our trip.  They, Eddie, Georgia, and Rick were great people to paddle with.  The River and its struggles are always a big story in our area, and I’m happy to document a part of that story.  The opportunity to get footage along all the different parts of the River is priceless.  The River basin has to be considered the ecological epicenter of this area.

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Halfway through yesterday’s paddle, we started smelling salt.  The River provides for the Bay, but the Bay gives a little to the River, too.  Many of the fish that make use of the oyster reefs and seagrass beds in Apalachicola Bay come up the river.  Rick even saw a blue crab swimming at one point, over twenty miles up the River.  Next week’s video explores the real value of the oyster reef, and how its influence can be felt beyond our coasts.  If you haven’t seen the first in our second series of videos, it sets up the commercial importance of the intertidal ecosystems such as those that found in and around Apalachicola Bay.  You can watch it here.

Below is a slideshow of our trip, from the River Styx to Owl Creek:

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.