Last week, Hanna Garland showed us how the Hughes/ Kimbro Lab adapted their techniques for underwater research in Apalachicola Bay. She talked about their difficulties with the weather, and as you can see in the video above, it was difficult for their oysterman collaborator (as it is for Apalachicola oystermen these days) to find enough healthy adult oysters to run the experiment. Below, David Kimbro looks back at the big Biogeographic Oyster study and what it has taught them about how oyster reefs work, and how they’ve been able to take that knowledge and apply it to the oyster fishery crisis.
Dr. David KimbroNortheastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Does our study of fear matter for problems like the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery crash? Absolutely.
Bear with me for a few sentences…
I like to cook. My first real attempt was a chicken piccata and it was a disaster. After ripping off the recipe from my brother (good cook), I quickly realized that the complexity of the recipe was beyond me. To save time and fuss, I rationalized that the ordering of ingredients etc. didn’t matter because it was all going into the same dish. Well, my chicken piccata stunk and I definitely didn’t impress my dinner date. Continue reading Researchers and Oystermen Fighting for Apalachicola Bay→
Part 2 of our RiverTrek adventure is now live. You can watch it here.
The web version of the video, which you see above, has some shots of our impromptu spelunking expedition by Means Creek that were not in the air version. I was waiting on permission to show our cave adventure, which was in a part of Torreya State Park that we were told will be opened to the public at some point in the future. I got that permission after last week’s Dimensions had been completed. You may notice that, for a video about a kayak trip, we spend a lot of time in caves, bushwhacking in the woods, or climbing up bluffs. None of our off-river excursions were in lands open to the public, but were instead near parklands that were (Means Creek in Torreya and Alum Bluff on The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, near the Garden of Eden Trail). With those parks in the northern stretch of the river and the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area in the south, there are ample opportunities to explore the areas adjacent to the river. Those protected lands are valuable for their ecotourism potential, but they have a indirect value when it comes to the water in the river, in Apalachicola Bay, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Continue reading Video: RiverTrek 2012 Days 1 & 2→
It’s always a good shoot day at Bay Mouth Bar as every animal seems to be eating every other animal. Oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds– the habitats we’ve covered over the last three weeks- reward those who take the time to look closely. At Bay Mouth Bar, everything is all out in the open. For a limited time, anyway…
Dr. David KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Like most kids, I spent a lot of my formative years in the backyard practicing how to throw the game-winning touch down pass, to shoot the game winning three-pointer, and to sink the formidably long putt. Although my backyard facilities obviously didn’t propel me into the NFL, NBA, or PGA, they never closed, required no admission fee from my pockets (thanks Mom and Dad!), and were only a few steps away.
Now that I’m striving to be an ecologist at Florida State University, I’m feeling pretty darn lucky about my backyard again. Instead of spending tons of time flying, boating, and driving to far away exotic places, I can use a kayak and ten minutes of David-power to access some amazing habitats right here along the Forgotten Coast.
Part of this coastal backyard was first intellectually groomed by one of the more famous and pioneering scientists of modern-day ecology, Dr. Robert Paine. Five decades ago, Dr. Paine noticed that the tip of Alligator Point sticks out of the water for a few hours at low tide. Of course, this only happens when the tides get really low, which happens about 5 days every month. But when the tip of Alligator Point (which is locally called Bay Mouth Bar) did emerge from the sea each month, Dr. Paine saw tons of large carnivorous snails slithering around a mixture of mud and seagrass. When I first saw this place, my eyeballs bulged out at the site of snails as large as footballs!
Fast- forward 2 decades later: Dr. Paine is developing one of the most powerful ecological concepts (keystone species), one that continues to influence our science and conservation efforts to this very day. Using the rocky shoreline of the Pacific North West as his coastal backyard, he is showing how a few sea stars dramatically dictate what a rocky shoreline looks like.
By eating lots of mussels that outcompete wimpy algae and anemones for space, the sea star allows a lot of different species to stick around. In other words, the sea star maintains species diversity of this community by preventing the mussel bullies from taking over the schoolyard. That’s one simple, but powerful concept….one species can be the keystone for maintaining a system. Lose that species, and you lose the system.
Ok, let’s grab our ecological concept and travel back in time to Dr. Paine’s earlier research at Bay Mouth Bar. Wow, the precursor to the keystone species concept may be slithering around our backyard of Bay Mouth Bar in the form of the majestic horse conch! In this earlier work, the arrival of this big boy at the bar was followed by the disappearance of all of the former big boys (like this lightning whelk). By eating lots of these potential bullies, the horse conch may be the key for keeping this system so diverse in terms of other wimpy snails.
But why should anyone other than an ecologist care about the keystone species concept and its ability to link Bay Mouth Bar with rocky shorelines of the Pacific NW? Well, what if the lightning whelks eat a lot more clams than do other snails, and less clams buried beneath sediments means less of the sediment modification that can really promote seagrass (Read more about the symbiotic relationship between bivalves and seagrasses here)? Thanks to Randall’s previous seagrass post, we can envision that less horse conchs could lead to less clams, less seagrass, and then finally a lot less of things that are pleasing to the eye (e.g., birding), to the fishing rod (e.g., red drum), to the stomach (e.g., blue crabs), and ultimately to our economy.
For the past two years, I’ve really enjoyed retracing Dr. Paine’s footsteps at Bay Mouth Bar. But lately, I’m feeling a little more urgent about needing to better understand this system because it’s disappearing (aerial images provided by USGS’s online database at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/).
To figure this out, we repeat a lot of what Dr. Paine did five decades ago. At the same time, we are testing some new ideas about how this system operates. For example, if the horse conch is the keystone species, is it dictating what Bay Mouth Bar looks like by eating stuff or by scaring the bully snails? How exactly does or doesn’t the answer affect clams, seagrasses, birds and fishes?
Luckily, because this system is so close, with some persistence and some good help, we’ll soon have good answers to those questions.
Ps: Many thanks to Mary Balthrop for helping us access this awesome study system every month.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Much like David finds it hard to distill why the oysters that he studies are so intriguing, I often struggle to convey the charisma of the salt marshes and seagrass beds where I spend so much of my time. At least people like to eat oysters! It can be harder for people to find a connection with the plants that form so many of the critical habitats along our coast (unless of course people misunderstand the meaning of “In the Grass” and think I study a VERY different type of plant!). But even if it is not recognized, there is a connection between the salt marsh and our everyday lives. Like oyster reefs, salt marshes provide many benefits to society, particularly along the coast:
1. A place to live (for marine and terrestrial animals)
Even if you’re one of those folks who find it hard to get excited about a bunch of plants, don’t tune out – the salt marsh is teeming with animals! Snails, fiddler crabs, mussels, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and snakes (!) are all critters that we encounter regularly when the tide is out. And there’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush when you see an alligator hauled out nearby. Even better, when the tide comes in, there are lots of animals that you and I (or at least, I) like to eat. Think blue crabs, mullet, and sea trout, for starters. Studies in Florida estimate that marshes provide up to nearly $7000 per acre for recreational fishing alone. Not bad.
2. A safer place to live (for people)
Although it’s generally frowned upon to build houses in the marsh (since it makes it hard for all those animals I just mentioned to live there), it’s a great idea to have lots of healthy marshes near your coastal property. Marshes can protect the coastline from waves and storms, leading to less damage in areas with marshes present. One estimate places the dollar value of coastal protection in the U.S. at over $8000 per hectare per year in reduced hurricane damages! Although here’s hoping that we don’t get an opportunity to test that particular benefit this year.
In addition to reducing the size and strength of waves, marshes also prevent coastal erosion. An unfortunate example of the role of marshes in erosion control came following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – plants in areas of the marsh that were heavily oiled died, leading to greatly increased rates of erosion in those areas (Silliman et al. 2012). Although the benefit of marshes for reducing erosion and combating sea level rise has been recognized for a long time, there are not any good estimates for what this erosion control is worth in $$. Given expectations of sea level rise in the coming years, I think that the motivation to understand the conditions that lead to sediment accumulation in marshes will only get stronger.
3. Clean water (for animals and people)
Because marshes lie at the intersection of the land and the sea, they serve as a filter for things trying to move between the two. When it comes to run-off and pollution from the land, it’s a very good thing that they do. Simply having a marsh present can serve as an effective alternative to traditional waste treatment. Of course, the protection can go the other direction too – marshes played a critical role in keeping oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from getting to higher elevations.
4. A place to graze (for livestock)
Support for livestock grazing is an important role of marshes in some areas, including the U.K. Although it’s not a benefit commonly associated with marshes in this area, the decaying fence posts that extend out into some areas of St. Joe Bay suggest that it wasn’t too long ago that marshes were used for a similar purpose here!
I could go on, but these and other benefits of marshes are described in greater detail in a recent review by Barbier and colleagues (which I referenced on this blog in May of 2011). Here is the table that they put together summarizing the monetary benefits that we derive from intact salt marshes:
Luckily for us, salt marshes keep working their magic even in the absence of accolades or appreciation. But greater appreciation is needed to help curb the decline of salt marshes around the world – estimated to be as much as 2% per year! We hope that this blog will help generate greater understanding and enthusiasm for the incredible coastal habitats that we are lucky enough to work in every day. Let us know how we’re doing!
In the next two weeks, we delve into a habitat that we have only occasionally covered: seagrass beds. Next week we examine, with visiting researcher Dr. Peter MacReadie, seagrass beds’ role in fighting global climate change. The week after that, we head to Bay Mouth Bar, one of the most ecologically unique places in the world. Also, we’ll be look at the failure of the Apachicola Bay oyster reefs from a biological perspective. Here are a few images of our visit to a Saint Joseph Bay seagrass bed and of Bay Mouth Bar at low tide, when you see all kinds of strange and interesting creatures:
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
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 KimbroFSU Coastal & Marine Lab
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?
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.
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.
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
The answer to this seemingly rhetorical question was the subject of a recent review by Edward Barbier and colleagues in the journal Ecological Monographs. They focused not only on salt marshes, but also coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and sand beaches / dunes. The impetus for the analysis was the recognition that many coastal habitats are in decline – for instance, 50% of salt marshes are lost or degraded around the world – and the belief that we need a better understanding of the true costs of these losses. Continue reading How much is a salt marsh worth?→
If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll realize that we often talk about similar research questions or ideas in the context of different projects. As David mentioned in his description of the Baymouth Bar project, this overlap is usually intentional: as ecologists, we’re interested not only in the specific habitats that we study, but also in the underlying factors that affect these habitats and the valuable services that they provide to we humans.
It may appear at times that we’ve been covering a diverse array of topics, and while this is true, all of these topics are interconnected- a web of topics centered around a couple of central themes. The diagram below is the map that shows where every post-topic fits into these central themes. Even the artists, writers, and photographers we occasionally feature have their place amongst ecological processes like sedimentation and the non-consumptive effects of predators. Every post from here on out will have one of these icons on it- if you don’t know what the icon means, just click on it and you’ll be back at this figure with an explanation:
Think a little smaller than this pelican here. Obviously, pelicans are a symbol of our coastal areas, flying in those long rows as they do while we’re driving down Highway 98. Pelicans covered in oil have become the poster-species of the environmental toll of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s horrifying to think of animals as evolved as dolphins washing up on the shores, and people of course are always concerned about sea turtles. As they should be. They are all important parts of the Gulf ecosystem.
But they are not the only important parts. There are other creatures that probably won’t make it on to that oil spill tragedy poster because, let’s face it, they already live in muck. Those are the species that we’ve been most concerned with on this site. They are worth worrying about, and I’ve come to find them cute in their way. I keep thinking I need to try to get Disney to make a movie based in a salt marsh or oyster reef, where mud crabs and periwinkle snails sing and hide from predatory blue crabs (who, like those sharks in Finding Nemo, might be sympathetic characters themselves). When kids are carrying plush fiddler crab dolls, maybe the little guys would get some consideration. As it turns out, however, I have no pull at Disney. So I’ll just talk about them right here on this blog.
Like the fiddlers. They eat sand. They shovel it in their mouths with their smaller claws, while they do the mating dance for which they’re better known with their larger “fiddle” claws. I see thousands of them at a time in a salt marsh, always scurrying away and making that sound, a little bit like trickling water and a little bit like tiny bubble wrap being popped. Of what importance are these silly little guys?
Other than being food for blue crabs, their importance has to do with the muck in which they live. They live in the sediment collected by the cordgrass root system; you can see the holes they call home throughout the marsh. As Dr. Hughes explained in this video, these burrows provide oxygen to the soil in which the cordgrass grows. So their presence helps the cordgrass grow, just as the cordgrass provides them shelter.
So maybe the fiddler crab hasn’t found himself at the center of any teary oil spill montage. But he’s an animal, and a fairly popular pet. Spartina alterniflora– aka smooth cordgrass- may never gain a foothold in the popular imagination proportionate to its ecological importance. It is the foundation species of a Gulf salt marsh. These marshes act as a filter for pollutants flowing into the ocean, protecting important estuaries such as those at the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Marshes provide shelter to a number of commercially important species (shrimp, mullet, and blue crab, for instance). And marshes also help absorb storm surges and prevent erosion.
Those are just a couple of examples. There are, of course, more. Tasty, tasty oysters filter water and prevent algal blooms lethal to other species. Toadfish have faces even other toadfish may not love, but they eat animals that would decimate oyster reefs if left unchecked. Those oyster predators are interesting as well. Mud crabs might get as large as 4 cm and have these thick little claws which tear through oyster shells. Oyster drills are small snails whose tongues (radula) are covered with thousands of small razor-like teeth.
As we move forward with this project, we’ll see more and more of all of these coastal denizens. So far oil has not reached the areas Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kimbro are studying, and so there is always hope that they may be spared. If oil does arrive, many of these species could be severely affected. And while some of them may not look like much, the harm that would come to them would have repercussions felt beyond their own habitats.
Interested in seeing a fiddler crab plush toy as a WFSU-TV pledge premium? Well, that isn’t likely to happen. But we will take comments and questions, as usual.