Zostera marina is a seagrass species, commonly known as eelgrass, that is found on both coasts of the United States, as well as in Europe. Unfortunately, Zostera is disappearing all over the place, including right here in New York. This could have devastating impacts on animals that rely on eelgrass as foraging grounds, or, as is the case with scallops, use it as a refuge from predation. This is its story, as seen through the eyes of an aspiring graduate student...
Maybe I was expecting a battle royal of sorts. I mean, I had seen Dr James Ammerman of NY SeaGrant take the government position on the Gulf oil spill, painting a rather rosey picture of whats happening down there. And I have read Carl Safina's blog posts, seen him on TED talks and watched him on Colbert talking about the devastation of this ecological disaster. So you might imagine how excited I was to learn that both men, affiliated with Stony Brook's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, would be on a panel discussing the oil spill. I imagined the gloves would be off in a no-holds barred slugfest between a government scientists and a staunch conservationist.
I was telling everyone to go. I predicted a lot of yelling.
I was disappointed. I guess I should say I wasn't disappointed by the news. It was encouraging to hear the consensus agreement that it could have been much, much worse. Despite not knowing the exact impact due to lingering effects for a considerable amount of time, everyone on the panel seemed to agree that the oil dissipated quickly, the scenes of oiled animals occurred in a very small portion of the Gulf, and oil only reached a very very small percentage of the marsh lands. No shouting. No fisticuffs between Ammerman and Safina, or any of the other members on the panel for that matter.
And, while they all stopped short of calling the spill the worst anthropogenic ecological disaster in US history, they did raise some very alarming issues. Basically, the panelists agreed that of greater concern for the Gulf ecosystem is the increasing dead zone and the loss of salt marshes. While the oil spill was an acute occurrence that will likely have some lingering effects, both the dead zone and marsh losses are Gulf impacts that are occurring over a long timescale and will continue to have considerable long term effects. In the question-answer period, Safina pointed out that the Gulf of Mexico has a large amount of natural resilience, as long as the ecological factory is still there - but that factory is the salt marsh, an important habitat which is vital for many species during various portions of their life histories. It is this reason that the dramatic loss of wetlands should be of much greater concern than any one oil spill. Without marshes, many species wouldn't be able to recover.
And yes, while this might seem a little sympathetic toward the oil companies, the truth if that this is a 20-30 billion dollar industry in the Gulf and as long as people continue to drive and use petroleum products, the industry won't go anywhere. We are all contributing to that problem. This event should have strengthened our resolve for clean energy, but as a NATION, we need to encourage a change in policy. That just doesn't seem to be happening. And while I don't like to get political on here, with the expected results of the coming election, we will be farther away from a clean energy nation despite the events in the Gulf, and our ever increasing pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is why its important for everyone to vote, even if you have lost faith in your party or aren't enthusiastic about any candidates, remaining on the sidelines could have very serious repercussions.
Or, sSELF for short. I just recently learned about this program when I attended the New York Marine Science Consortium annual conference. The idea behind this program is that it gives groups, such as schools, the opportunity to be active stewards by monitoring their local environments. The south shore estuary system extends from highly impacted water bodies in the west, to less impacted embayments to the east, and encompasses a watershed with a variety of land uses. The program aims to educate citizens on some of these issues while allowing them to become active in collection of data that helps scientists monitor the estuaries. The program gives interested groups all the equipment and training they need to get started on the monitoring. This started back in 2007 and now has 35 different groups that have contributed to 400 different data sets. In addition to local schools around Long Island, other citizens groups also participate, including the Sierra Club and SPLASH - a group of concerned citizens, started by local fishermen, whose goal is to remove waterfront pollution through both public awareness and individual participation. It is an interesting program, and I hope to become involved with some local schools getting this established on the East End.
The results of the 10 year long study on all walks of marine life ended recently, and the results have recently been released, reports an article on CNN.com. This "decade of discovery" was started by a Rutgers researcher and ended up using data collected from over 2700 researchers from 80 nations - quite the collaborative effort. These scientists collected data on the smallest bacteria to the largest whales, from the frigid Antarctic to the balmy tropics and everywhere in between. General conclusions: the oceans are much more connected and the species are much more diverse than previously thought. And that most of the species are as yet unidentified. You can read some research highlights here and check out many of the images from the decade long study here.
All in all, a very exciting conclusion to an epic task of trying to understand, survey, and catalog ocean life.
True, the northeast used to be a hot spot for white sharks. There were a great many sightings in the 50s and 60s, sighting of both juveniles, adults and even some pairs that were believed to be mating. While little is known about the white sharks around Long Island at this time period, Dr. Chapman said that some researchers believe this might have been a spawning and nursery ground. That being said, there is little data on white sharks from this time period other than sightings. White shark fishing then became quite common, and some of the largest white sharks ever caught were landing on Long Island, particularly out in Montauk, where Captain Frank Mundus was renowned for being a top shark fisherman.
What happened over the course of the past decades is that white shark populations have dwindled in the northeast. While there might be some debate as to the magnitude of the decline, I think most researchers will agree that it is significant. Dr. Chapman is looking to use genetic tools to get a grip on how small (or big) the white shark population might be. Using samples from around 50 sharks, the data thus far shows that northeast white sharks have a low genetic diversity, indicative of a species that has experiences a considerable decline, also known as a bottleneck. This could be potentially devastating to coastal ecosystems along the US, as these animals are apex predators in the coastal food web.
So maybe the white shark advisory shouldn't have been alerting the public about their presence in the waters of New England, but perhaps, they should have been warning us about their disappearance.
That all being said, I am no shark biologist, and the above information was from my notes at the lecture. To learn more about sharks, you should check out some other websites, like the one about New England Sharks, and other blogs by people in the know, such as this entry at Ya Like Dags
I am a marine biologist that is currently attending graduate school at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Marine Sciences Research Center, of Stony Brook University, New York. I am very interested in marine ecology and have been focusing my studies on bay scallop interactions with their habitats. I plan to investigate various anthropogenic impacts on bay scallop populations for my PhD dissertation. This blog will highlight the details of my graduate research, from bay scallop-eelgrass interactions as previously mentioned, to alternative habitats for scallops, such as Codium, to trophic cascades, and more. Enjoy!
Eelgrass is an important habitat for multiple marine species, including the bay scallop
Scallop on Artificial Eelgrass
This tethered juvenile bay scallop attached itself to my artificial eelgrass...
The decline of eelgrass meadows
Eelgrass, Zostera marina, is a flowering, marine vascular plant that remains submerged all the time. This is quite a feat for vascular flowering plants, and only a few dozen species world wide are capable of growing completely submerged in a marine environment. Eelgrass creates and extremely important habitat, its upright structures and complex root system create a 3-D living space for many different types of animals. It is (or was) the dominant habitat forming SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) throughout much of the coastal waters in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, for various reasons, eelgrass meadows have seen drastic declines, and in many locations eelgrass only exists in a mosaic of small patches. This is extremely bad news as many of the important, and formerly important, commercial and recreational fisheries of the northeast US are dependent on Zostera at some part of their life cycle as a nursery and foraging ground. Some of the species are finfish like tautog, bluefish, fluke, winter flounder, porgies, while others are shellfish such as blue mussels, hard clams, oysters, bay scallops, and blue crabs. Many of the aforementioned species support or once supported vibrant fisheries. Many of those fisheries have collapsed, also for various reasons. However, is it possible there is a link between the crash of the fisheries, the decline of Zostera and the failure for recovery on both ends?
Eelgrass, Zostera marina, a temperate seagrass species, providing a vital habitat for numerous marine species
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Scallops in eelgrass
Some adult bay scallops we planted in eelgrass for a free release survival experiment we conducted
If you live in coastal zones, urge your local and state representatives to push for environmental issues that you are concerned about. Ask for more stringent rules regarding the destruction of existing eelgrass. Encourage restoration programs to be set-up. Call your state and national representatives and ask them what they are doing to protect our precious resources. Practice safer boating and know the undersea terrain - i.e., don't drive your boat in very shallow water. Avoid clamming in eelgrass meadows.