By Katie Mosher

Sea-level rise, ecosystem and fisheries dynamics, oysters, dune restoration, wind energy and flounder aquaculture are among the topics of North Carolina Sea Grant’s research projects for the 2010-12 funding cycle.

“The coastal resources of the State of North Carolina stand to benefit greatly through these 11 new projects,” explains Michael Voiland, North Carolina Sea Grant executive director.

A total of $1.6 million each year in annual funding through 2013 from NOAA’s National Sea Grant College Program, along with matching funds from the state, also provides for the continuation of North Carolina Sea Grant’s award-winning extension, communications and education programs, as well as the capability for smaller research projects to provide rapid response to changing conditions and needs.

“North Carolina Sea Grant provides an ability to respond to real-world coastal issues in ways that would not otherwise be possible,” says Terri Lomax, North Carolina State University vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. “All of these newly selected research projects address critical needs in North Carolina.”

The projects reflect expertise from academic institutions across the state, including Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC Wilmington and the UNC Coastal Studies Institute. Several projects include researchers from more than one campus or partners at government agencies.

“Sea Grant will enable research investigators from the state’s best universities to explore answers and opportunities. With those answers in hand, our program will assist communities, businesses and individuals in their lives and livelihoods,” Voiland adds.

Prior to selection, projects must complete a rigorous process that includes in-state consideration of each proposed topic for relevance to North Carolina, then an extensive review of the research merits of the full proposal by national experts.

The new research fits into four focus areas identified in strategic plans for the national and state Sea Grant programs:


Effects of Habitat Alteration and Biotic Interactions on Survival of Juvenile Estuarine Fish
Jeffrey Buckel, Joseph Hightower, NC State; Benjamin Letcher, U.S. Geologcal Survey; and Frederick Schaif, UNCW

Even the biggest, toughest fish was once a small fry. Understanding how these recreational and commercial species survive their juvenile years could help estuarine resource managers evaluate fishery stocks, management strategies and habitat protection plans. Researchers will use advances in electronic tag technologies and mark-recapture models to estimate natural mortality rates and movement behavior of juvenile fish in estuarine creeks.

The researchers also will look at the effects of human alterations to the ecosystem, predator abundance and fish population density on growth, mortality and movement rates of the juvenile fish. The results will help determine whether the state’s “strategic habitat area” alteration index explains variability in juvenile growth, movement and mortality rates.

Impacts of Sea-Level Rise and Land-Use Modifications on Fringing Marsh Sustainability
Brent McKee, Antonio Rodriguez, UNC-CH; and Richard Miller, ECU and CSI

Salt marshes provide essential “ecosystem services” to our coastal communities, including wildlife and bird habitats, flood buffers and ecotourism dollars. But to help sustain these valuable assets, managers need to understand how river sediments feed salt marshes and how natural and human activities erode them. Information from this study also will help coastal communities plan for predicted sea-level rise.

This study will identify effects of land-use changes on the supply of inorganic sediment to marshes, as well as the impact of accelerating rates of sea-level rise and storms on erosion of marsh shorelines. Noting connections between watershed activities and salt-marsh stability is fundamental to managing these systems.

Assessing the Potential for Estuarine Nitrogen Removal Using Ecosystem Engineers
Michael Piehler, UNC-CH and CSI

Oysters are water quality heroes: they filter algae and other phytoplankton out of the water and help maintain a balanced community structure in estuarine ecosystems. But increased nutrient levels and reduced oyster numbers have enhanced phytoplankton populations. These increases are linked to significant changes in estuarine nutrient cycling, water quality and ecosystem health. Resulting changes in estuarine and coastal nutrient levels also increase the occurrence of low-oxygen bottom areas, and increases in harmful algal blooms.

So, can we put a dol lar figu re to the water-quality service of oysters? This project will attempt to quantify the ecological value of the nutrient processing provided by oyster reef modification of estuarine sediments. The researcher will use basic economic tools to estimate the monetary value of the oyster reef nitrogen-cycling effects, using costs for nitrogen removal from point sources (e.g. sewage treatment plants) or from non-point sources (e.g. stormwater best management practices).

Environmental Stress and Microbial Dynamics of Oysters and Marsh Mussels
Amy Ringvood, James Oliver, Sandra Clinton, UNC-C

Low dissolved-oxygen levels, known as hypoxia, can stress critical estuarine habitats and affect commercially important fish and shellfish living there. Combined with elevated temperatures and increased nutrient inputs, hypoxia can increase bacteria levels in estuarine organisms and habitats, and raise proliferation rates of human pathogens in edible shellfish.

By working with oysters and mussels, this research team will evaluate whether marsh mussels could be used to help mitigate the potential bacterial problems of oysters — and potentially improve the success of oyster culture and restoration efforts in North Carolina. The results are expected to provide new information regarding the potential impacts of hypoxia on shellfish, which would be valuable knowledge for coastal managers, seafood consumers, and the seafood industry.


Sand Dune Restoration: What is ‘Local?’ Understanding Relationships Between Evolutionary History of Sea Oats (Uniola paniculate)Poaceae, and Adaptations to Local Environmental Conditions
Eva Gonzales, Appalachian

Sand dunes are ecological and aesthetic landmarks of the Outer Banks. Plantings of native plant species have proven to be an effective and sustainable practice to rebuild dunes, which are a second line of defense when it comes to protecting the land from the sea. However, management agencies have no system to avoid introduction of genetically unsuitable plant strains into newly restored habitats.

The researcher plans to identify the most suitable genetic strains of Uniolapaniculata — or sea oats, a native dune grass — for long-term and sustainable dune restoration. The study will reflect the evolutionary history of the species, as well as adaptations to local environmental conditions. The results are expected to provide new tools for designing restoration strategies, conservation and sustainable management of coastal habitats.


Tourism Impacts and Second Home Development in Coastal Communities: A Sustainable Approach
Patrick Long Huili Hao, James Kleckley, ECU

If you own property along the coast, you probably have an opinion on tourism and development. These researchers want to know what’s on your mind. State and local leaders are challenged to manage growth while protecting social, environmental and economic resources and values. This study is designed to help identify the factors that shape public attitudes towards tourism and growth development practices.

Researchers plan to identify perceptions of the impacts of tourism and second-home development on community life; assess the opinion of resident property owners and second homeowners towards a host of potential sustainable actions; and determine the extent and manner of information consumption by property owners.

Community Wind Education and Job Training in Coastal North Carolina
Brian Miles, NC State; and Mehran Elahi, ECSU

Roughly one third of North Carolina’s economically viable, land-based wind resources are located at the coast. These resources will be important to meeting the state’s requirements for use of renewable energy. Through education, and by describing the wind resources in partner communities, this project will help foster the development of wind-energy projects that are not subject to transmission limitations.

ECSU students will install wind observation equipment at three secondary schools in the northern coastal region, and the team will provide workshops to help teachers integrate wind energy technology into the school curriculum. The researchers also will develop wind resource assessment curricula for the renewable energy program at ECSU, where students will analyze wind data from the test sites and prepare resource assessment reports.


Optimizing All-Female Southern flounder Culture in Law-Saline Waters
Russell Borski, Harry Daniels, NC State; and Wade Watanabe, Md Shah Alam, UNCW

Earlier Sea Grant-funded research resulted in the first two southern flounder farms in the nation. Since then, researchers have had success in fingerling production, grow-out technology and the ability to produce all-female genetic stocks. In this project, the team will review tank conditions that could stress the flounder, leading to sex reversal of young fish. Such a reversal results in slower growing males that are too small to fetch premium market prices — reducing potential profits by 35 percent.
Southern flounder aquaculture is now being demonstrated at two commercial operations in NC, utilizing results of earlier Sea Grant research. The flounder grow to market size in tanks. Researchers are now looking at tank color and other conditions that may encourage young flounder to stay as females, rather than to change to males, which are slower growing and thus less valuable in the market. Photo courtesy Harry Daniels, NCSU.

Southern flounder has great promise for culture because of its wide salinity tolerance and rapid-growth rate in low-salinity water. Southern flounder culture would contribute to the U.S. mariculture industry through introduction of a consumer-preferred, high-value product that can be readily marketed worldwide. States also are interested in culturing flounder for stock enhancement to supplement declining wild stocks.

A Novel Approach to Improving Resistance to the Parasite Causing Demo in Oysters
Edward Noga, NC State

Dermo is a parasitic disease that spreads among wild and cultured oysters, often resulting in major losses. However, no highly effective methods exist to control or manage this disease among oyster populations. Ed Noga wants to understand an immune defense that may play a major role in protecting oysters against Dermo.

This project focuses on an “antimicrobial polypeptide” naturally produced by healthy oysters, which likely plays an important role in controlling Dermo by slowing its growth in the oyster. This would be the first time that any natural compound has been identified in oysters that has an inhibitory effect on Dermo — thus opening an approach to managing the disease with the new ability to identify stocks that offer immunity.

The Physiological Basis of Winter-Induced Stress and Mortality In Juvenile Red Drum
Frederick Scharf, Amanda Southwood, UNCW

As the state saltwater fish, red drum is important to commercial and recreational fisheries and to our coastal history and culture. The current population assessment indicates that the red drum stock in the state is recovering, but has not yet reached management targets. If the timing and magnitude of juvenile mortality is better understood, the state can fine tune population models and improve the fishery management process.

This project will contribute new information about the physiological basis of winter mortality during the red drum’s first year of life. The research team will examine the effects of body size and winter severity that may generate annual changes in abundance patterns. Understanding the biology of red drum during this early age also may help identify potential for stock enhancement.

To Seed or Not to Seed: The Value of Seeding Restored Oyster Reefs For Ecosystem Function
Christopher Finelli, Troy Alphin, Martin Posey, Ami Wilbur, UNCW

Current methods of oyster reef restoration involve the planting of oyster shell or other material with the expectation that oyster larvae will settle and grow. You can also “seed” these plantings with live oysters to increase larval oyster recruitment and accelerate reef development.

This method is gaining popularity, but the economic benefits of this practice, particularly in light of the added expense, have not been fully evaluated.

In some cases, seeding may actually result in “overspat” — where larval oysters crowd over limited settling areas and smother larvae already settled there. Moreover, seeding may increase predation on juvenile oysters by attracting predators, or hasten the establishment of oyster diseases on restored reefs, especially if the stock used in the seeding exhibits reduced disease tolerance. To further explore the benefit of seeding, the team will examine whether seeded reefs outperform unseeded reefs over the short and long term.


The researchers tackling these 11 varied topics are not alone. They can draw upon the experience and expertise of Sea Grant outreach staff either at the administrative headquarters at NC State in Raleigh, or at coastal offices located in Manteo, Morehead City and Wilmington.

“These new research efforts, plus the associated ongoing activities of Sea Grant’s communications specialists and field-based extension educators will help public entities, coastal businesses, non-governmental groups and private individuals to make better decisions on how coastal resources are used, developed and/or conserved,” Voiland explains.

“This federal award, with its matching state support, means that new and innovative information will underpin key coastal initiatives and investments.”

This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of Coastwatch.

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