An oyster is tonged from Apalachicola Bay. It is shucked, handed to me, and eaten just minutes after it left the water. Almost immediately, a wave of energy washes over me. This must be what Popeye feels when he eats spinach, or Mario when he eats the mushroom and becomes Super Mario.
In January, David Kimbro’s lab did a preliminary survey of Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs, looking at the overall health of oysters and the presence of predators. They followed this up with an experiment meant to monitor oyster health and predator effects over time. Many of their experimental cages were displaced, likely due to the buoys marking them breaking off. But what they found in the cages that remained intact was that oyster drill numbers appear to be exploding in warmer waters. David is looking for help keeping tabs on them.
Dr. David KimbroNortheastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Wishing that you were wrong is not something that comes naturally to anyone. But that is how I felt at the most recent oyster task force meeting in April. There, I shared some early research results about the condition of the oyster reefs. In our surveys, we found that the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay were in really bad shape and that there were not any big bad predators hanging around the reefs to blame. Even though I had originally shot off my big mouth about the oyster fishery problem being caused by an oyster-eating snail, I hoped that our first bit of data meant the snails were never there. Or better…that they were gone. The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.
But an alternative of this David-cries-wolf story is that our January sampling didn’t turn up many predators because it’s cold in January, and because they were hunkered down for a long winters nap. Unfortunately, this option is looking stronger.
Since the task force meeting, we have been figuring out how conduct field experiments in Apalachicola. To be honest, an underwater environment without any visibility is an experimentalist’s worst nightmare. Still, we deployed fancy equipment, big cages, and then little mini experiments inside each big cage to figure out how much of the oyster problem is due to the environment, to disease, or to predators.
Even though we lost over half of our experiment and instrumentation, we recovered just enough data to show that the problem could be predation and that the culprit is a voracious snail. So, after learning some lessons on how to not lose your equipment, we decided to take another crack at it. In fact, Hanna and crew just finished sampling half of our second experiment today. We got the same results….lots of snails quickly gobbled up all of the oysters that were deployed without protective cages. But the oysters that were protected with cages did just fine.
This photo illustrates what Apalachicola oyster reefs are dealing with. This is one clutch of eggs laid by one adult snail. Within each little capsule, there are probably 10-20 baby snails. After a long winter’s nap, these snails are hungry.
We are going to keep at this, because one week long experiment doesn’t really tell us that much. But if we keep getting the same answer from multiple experiments, then we are getting somewhere.
In addition to updating y’all, I wanted to ask for your help. Because my small lab can’t be everywhere throughout the bay at all times, there are two things you could do if you are on the water.
First, if you come upon our experiment, can you let me know when you happened upon them and how many buoys you saw? If you report that all buoys are present, then I’ll sleep really well. And if you alert us that some buoys are missing, then I’ll be grateful because we will stand a better of chance of quickly getting out there before the cages are inadvertently knocked around, so that we can recover the data. Click here for GPS coordinates and further instructions.
Second, if you are tonging oysters, then you are probably tonging up snails. It would really help us to know when, where, and how many snails you caught. Take a photo on your phone (Instagram hashtag #apalachcatch – Instagram instructions here) or e-mail them to email@example.com. We’ll be posting the photos and the information you provide on this blog.
This is kind of a new thing for us, attempting to use technology and community support this way. There may be some bumps along the way. If you’re having trouble trying to get photos to us, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks a bunch!
David’s Apalachicola Research is funded by Florida Sea Grant
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
A couple of years ago, David wrote about what seemed to be a very locally contained problem. An out of control population of crown conchs was decimating oyster reefs south of Saint Augustine. Now, he’s seeing that problem in other Florida reefs, including those at the edges Apalachicola Bay. In reviewing his crew’s initial sampling of the bay, he sees that the more heavily harvested subtidal reefs are being assaulted by a different snail.
Dr. David KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Along the Matanzas River south of St. Augustine Florida, Phil Cubbedge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by harvesting and selling oysters for a living. But this reliable income became unreliable and non-existent sometime around 2005. Then, Phil could find oysters but only oysters that were too small for harvest. Like many other folks in this area, Phil abandoned this honest and traditional line of work.
In 2010, Phil was fishing with his grandson along the Matanzas River and spotted several individuals who seemed severely out of place. Because Phil decided to see what they were up to, we are one step closer toward figuring out what happened to the oyster reefs of Matanzas and what may be happening to the oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay.
Before I met Phil on this fateful morning, I was studying how the predators that visit oyster reefs may help maintain reefs and the services they provide (check out that post here). My ivory-tower mission was to see if the benefits of predators on oyster reefs change from North Carolina to Florida. To be honest, I’m not from Florida and I blindly chose the Matanzas reefs to be one of my many study sites. And in order to study lots of sites from NC to Florida, I couldn’t devote much time or concern to any one particular site. In short, I was a Lorax with a Grinch-sized heart that was two sizes too small; I just wanted some data from as many sites as possible.
But then I met Phil, heard about his loss, and understood that no one was paying attention to it. After looking around this area, my Grinch-sized heart grew a little bigger. Everywhere I looked had a lot of reef structure yet no living oysters. Being a desk-jockey now, I immediately made my first graduate student (Hanna) survey every inch of oyster reef along 15 km of Matanzas shoreline. I think it was about a month’s worth of hard labor during a really hot summer, but she’s tough. Hey, I worked hard on my keyboard!
With these data and lots of experiments, we showed that a large loss of Matanzas oyster reef is due to a voracious predatory snail (crown conch, Melongena corona). This species has been around a long time and it is really important for the health of salt marshes and oyster reefs (in next week’s post, Randall shows the crown conch’s role in the salt marsh). But something is out of whack in Matanzas because its numbers seemed to look more like an outbreak. But, why? Well, thanks to many more Hanna surveys and experiments, we are closing in on that answer: a prolonged drought, decreasing inputs of fresh water, and increasing water salinity.
We need to figure this out soon, because we see the same pattern south of Matanzas at Cape Canaveral. In addition, I saw conchs overwhelming the intertidal reefs of Apalachicola last fall. While these reefs may not be good for harvesting, they are surely tied to the health of the subtidal reefs that have been the backbone of the Apalachicola fishery for a very long time. Even worse, the bay’s subtidal reefs seemed infested with another snail predator, the southern oyster drill (Stramonita haemastoma). Is this all related? After all, according to locals and a squinty-eyed look at Apalachicola oyster landings, it looks like Apalachicola reefs also started to head south in 2005.
To help answer my question, my team began phase 1 of a major monitoring program throughout Apalachicola Bay in January 2013.With funding from Florida SeaGrant, my lab targeted a few oyster reefs and did so in a way that would provide a decent snap shot of oysters throughout the whole bay. With the help of Shawn Hartsfield and his trusty boat, a visit to these sites over a time span of two weeks and hours upon hours of sample processing back at the lab revealed the following:
(1) There is a lot more oyster reef material in the eastern portion of the bay;
(2) There are also a lot more adult oysters toward the east;
(3) Regardless of huge differences in adult oyster density and reef structure, the ratio of dead oysters to live oysters is about the same throughout the whole bay;
(4) Although the abundance of snail predators is not equal throughout the whole bay, it looks like their abundance may track the abundance of adult oysters.
These data do not show a smoking gun, because many different things or a combination of things could explain these patterns. To figure out whether the outbreak of multiple snail predators is the last straw on the camel’s back for Apalachicola and other north Florida estuaries, we are using the same experimental techniques that Hanna used in Matanazas River. Well, like any repeat of an experiment, we had to add a twist. Thank goodness Stephanie knows how to weld!
Luckily, I have a great crew that is daily working more hours than a day should contain. As I type, they are installing instrumentation and experiments that will address my question. If you see Hanna and Stephanie out on the bay, please give them a smile and a pat on the back.
Click here to see graphs illustrating the increase in salinity in the Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The NERR System allows you to review data from sensors at any of their reserves, including Matanzas and Apalachicola.
Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.