Since my last post, oil has stopped spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well, a very welcome development in what has been a long and grim story. Although it is tempting to feel that we are out of the woods, all one needs to do is consider the amount of oil that has entered the Gulf to realize that it will be a long time before we fully understand the ecological impacts of this disaster, much less fully recover from it.
That said, the probability that the marshes I study in St. Joseph Bay and Apalachee Bay are going to be directly impacted by oil has declined dramatically. You may wonder, were our efforts to collect “pre-oil” data wasted? The answer is no, for a number of reasons:
After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally. The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town. The article below is a little more personal.
Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola. So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships. My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month. Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall. Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project. More on that later.
People in Apalachicola are proud of their product. The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice. The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”
“They’re delicious,” I’d say.
“Enjoy them while you can…”
Dr. David Kimbro in Alligator Harbor
I did enjoy them, as I have for years. People in these parts have for quite a while. Longer than you may realize. At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people. The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older. This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years. It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time. The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs. New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago. But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality. When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs. He’d never seen so many.
I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was. We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos. This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs. Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was. I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life. I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up. Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years? No one can really say. Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same. In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told. I’ll enjoy it while I can.
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See David and his crew in action, and see what animals are on Alligator Harbor reefs.
The title of this blog (a sports metaphor) is how my teacher first introduced me to marine ecology. For our oyster project, this essentially means that we need to establish who is on the oyster reefs before we can begin to make connections among predators, oysters, and their water filtration services….as well as (unfortunately) the impacts of oil.
So far, we’ve identified the organisms on the bottom rung of our food web (think of it has a pyramid): oysters, clams, amphipods, and polychaetes on the bottom rung of the food web and mud crabs and snapping shrimp on the next higher rung of the food web. Our goal this week was to begin quantifying who is at the top of this food pyramid. To do this, we deployed crab traps, bait-fish pots, and gill nets onto each of our reefs during low tide. Following the ensuing flood tide, we returned the next day to count our catch and then promptly release everyone.
the hardhead catfish was the most abundant species trapped during this survey
But after running out of fresh water to drink and profusely perspiring all the moisture out of my body while out on the reefs, it dawned on me that nature of this catch is likely an interesting seasonal pattern (again, I’m new here!): only hardy organisms that can tolerate really hot and low oxygen waters are going to be on Florida reefs right now. Once the rest of this research team begins collecting similar data from Virginia to Florida, it will be interesting to see if these low abundance-diversity patterns might last longer in some areas (e.g., Florida with longer summer) than in others (e.g., NC with shorter summer). If that’s the case, then the cascading effects of higher order predators (things at the top of our food web) down to oysters and their water filtration services may be occur more consistently during the summer in northern than in southern estuaries.
Hmmm…..good thing we are conducting a relatively long-term study and will consistently repeat this sampling in the future to rigorously detect interesting patterns like this one.
Until next time…
The Music in the video was by Jim Crozier. As always, we welcome submissions from local musicians. WFSU’s kayak was provided by Wilderness Way.
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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The Panhandle has been my home for most of my life and the older I get, the more fun I have looking at – and photographing – it in an “up close and personal” manner.
There is great fun in “really seeing” something for the first time and being surprised by just how beautiful it is.
The slideshow above was photographed by Beth at Alligator Point, not too far from where David Kimbro is studying oyster reefs, and many of the photos are of salt marshes, such as those studied by Randall Hughes. So I knew when I saw them that they would be a great fit for this site.
You may know Beth Switzer as Executive Director and on camera personality at The Florida Channel, and before that on WFSU-TV. I was surprised, after years of watching and occasionally working with her, to discover that she liked to photograph nature. What’s not surprising is that she has forged a connection with the natural splendor of our area. Those of us working in broadcasting in the panhandle end up seeing a lot of the area, and meeting a lot of the people. It’s impossible to work in TV here and not love it here.
We’re two months into “In the Grass, On the Reef,” and so far the winds have been kind to Randall and David’s sites in St. Joseph Bay an Alligator Harbor. When Deepwater Horizon exploded, we stepped up production on the project thinking that oil would arrive at any moment, and that we should get as much footage as we could before it hit. Now, the more I go to these places, the less I think about oil while I’m there. I hear about it on the radio as I’m driving to and from the shoots, but then I’m walking in water, planting my tripod in mud to get a steady shot of a periwinkle climbing a blade of cordgrass, or trying to see through my lens a stone crab that looks only slightly different than the oysters surrounding it. In those moments, it just doesn’t feel like it will happen. I know it will most likely happen, but it never feels like it will.
One of the pleasant developments of doing this has been having artist features like the one above. So far we have had photographers and musicians, and we are talking to some writers as well. We want to hear from artists in any medium who depict or are inspired by the coastal habitats of the Forgotten Coast. Photographers, painters, musicians, writers: share your art with us! You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, as always, comments and questions are welcome.
Watch Dr. Hughes’ species diversity experiment. The results could help determine how best to restore marshes affected by oil.
With oil arriving on FL beaches, the race is on. We’ll be out in our sites this week collecting more data. We want to be sure that we know as much as possible about:
(1) the condition of our sites before oil arrives;
(2) the amount and specific location of any oil that does reach our sites; and
(3) the response of the marsh plants and animals to this oil.
We expect that there will be considerable variability in the degree and extent of damage to our sites, both because oil exposure will likely be patchy (at least at first), and because marshes are likely to differ in their ability to either withstand or recover from oil. And this variation in marsh response provides a prime opportunity for us to learn more about the specific marsh characteristics that either hinder or promote recovery, information that could be valuable in the aftermath of this disaster.
"marsh 2," location of the species diversity experiment
One aspect of marshes that may aid in the response to oil is plant species diversity. A substantial number of scientific studies in the ocean and on land illustrate that having more species in an area can reduce the impacts of disturbance. For example, research by David Tilman and colleagues shows that drought impacts are less severe in Minnesota grasslands with more plant species. A number of different processes can contribute to these positive effects of diversity, but they generally result from the fact that individual species typically differ in their life history (the timing of growth, reproduction, etc.) and in their response to specific disturbances. Thus, if you have more species, you’re more likely to contain one or two that are able to withstand disturbance as it occurs, or that are able to re-grow quickly following the disturbance.
So, back to salt marshes and oil. We know from previous studies that different marsh plants have different tolerances for oil (1,2). Because the chances of a more tolerant plant species being present are greater when there are more plant species around, it seems possible that marsh plant diversity could reduce the negative impacts of oil exposure. We’ll get some idea of whether or not this is the case from our surveys of natural marshes – we know the plant species diversity before oil gets there, and we’ll be able to record the impacts to the marsh once oil arrives to see if the negative effects are reduced in areas with more species. But to get the “real” story (i.e., a story not complicated by characteristics other than plant species diversity that vary from marsh to marsh), we need to do an experiment.
Recently, we did just that – we set up an experiment to test whether marshes (“plots”) with more species (3) are less impacted by oil than marshes with few species (1). 3 species may not seem particularly diverse, but it’s on par with what we find in natural marshes. There’s a chance that our experimental site won’t get any oil, which quite honestly will be fine by me. (In that case, we’ll simply look at how marsh productivity and growth differ due to marsh plant species diversity.) But, if it does, we’ll be positioned to examine how marsh plant species diversity affects the response to oil contamination.
Randall’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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