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...
Well, now I've seen everything. Well maybe not everything, but in all my NY diving, I had never seen this: eelgrass on an exposed, essentially oceanic sandy, rocky bottom, and a school of YOY cod. I have heard about eelgrass in these locations. I have heard that there have been increasing cod landings in NY over the past 2 winters. I have even read that juvenile cod utilize eelgrass. But I had never actually seen it until last week, when we dove along the south-western corner of Fisher's Island. We were out there for the day looking at some eelgrass for some new projects we are working on in the lab and in addition to collect samples for genetic analysis for a colleague's (Jamie Brisbin's) research. After we were done at our site for the day, we decided to take a quick drop in along the exposed southern shore where the grass was supposed to be extremely tall and growing in a relatively rocky habitat. It was a pretty cool site - I saw typically rocky subtidal macroalgae - kelps, fucoids, coralline - with patchy eelgrass mixed in. It was pretty exciting and cool to see (although my picture below hardly does it justice).
But while I was down there, I was surrounded by what appeared to me to be young of the year (or at the most young juvenile) cod. I am in no means a fish biologist, so I might be off a bit in estimating their age, but they were definitely gadiforms, and I am fairly confident they were Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua. The distinguishing feature for me was the 3 dorsal fins. Either way, I was surprised to be surrounded by this school, although again, these pictures do them no justice. I found it difficult to get good photos - it was late in the day, the water was surgey (I just made up a word I think), and I just couldn't get very close, so I was limited by the capabilities of my Sea and Sea camera. That didn't stop me from trying, mind you. I was swimming, hands extended in front of me and (don't try this at home) holding my breath while diving and snapping away. Everytime I let out a breath, they would swim away. This is poor diving practice, and I wasn't holding my breath for long - just slightly longer than my normal breathing rhythms - it was just my best chance at getting any shots at all.
But then I realized, wow, these are a bunch of young cod and they are staying in this area where there is eelgrass. And I remembered an article I read about YOY cod and survival in eelgrass meadows. And since my experiences with eelgrass have always been in lagoonal-type estuaries where we don't see cod (although we do see their cousins Atlantic tomcod and hake), I was excited to see both eelgrass and cod in the same place (mind you, I had never seen cod while diving either). So I was sitting on the bottom, trying to follow this school of fish and get any good pictures, and thought this is what that paper was talking about. I will detail the paper below.
The basic idea behind the paper by Ann Marie Gorman et al in 2009 was this idea of habitat patch size and edge effects on juvenile cod. I was particularly interested in this paper because the impacts of eelgrass patch morphometrics is something I have spent considerable time working on in regards to bay scallops - my research organism. So any manuscript pertaining to seagrass patch effects I try to read. This paper was pertaining to Atlantic cod, predatory mortality, and edge effects, all things of significance to my research. Since young of the year cod utilize coastal eelgrass habitats as nurseries and predation refuges, varying sizes of patches can have considerable impacts on juvenile survival. The group investigated different size patches, as well as within patch location (along the patch edge, 5 and 10 meters into the patch and into the unvegetated sediment outside the patch), and how those two factors affected the survival of tethered age-0 cod. Obviously, there are all sorts of potential artifacts with tethering mobile individuals in survival studies, however, because they are mobile, there is no other way to look at predatory mortality as specific locations within a given habitat. They observed a relationship which demonstrated lowest survival at intermediate patch sizes and highest survival at the largest patch sizes. And interestingly, they had lowest survival of tethered scallops along the eelgrass patch edge than either within the patch or in the barren habitat - and this survival increased with distance from the edge in both directions. This has been observed in other seagrass habitats, so I bought this. It solidifies the hypothesis that predators in seagrass habitats patrol along the edge of the seagrass, where prey densities are likely to be higher than in unvegetated habitats, and more easily accessible than within the seagrass patch. An interested read for those interested in spatial and landscape ecology, impacts of habitat patchiness on survival, or finifsh predation.
Gorman, A., Gregory, R., & Schneider, D. (2009). Eelgrass patch size and proximity to the patch edge affect predation risk of recently settled age 0 cod (Gadus) Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 371 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1016/j.jembe.2008.12.008
As marine scientists, sometimes we forget or don't even realize how much local baymen and fishermen actually know. Or maybe we don't trust them because they are "lay" persons. But they work the bay, they try to catch many of the species we study (as money is a big driver of research), and they know things. Local baymen who have worked the bay for years suggest that bay scallop recruitment is higher in years after cold/wet winters. Sometimes, we take what they say with a grain of salt. However, they know. They have often been working with these species for as long or longer than we have, and it is often also a generation thing. Generations of baymen can't be wrong in their assessment, can they?
A 2001 study in the Dutch Wadden Sea supports these claims, however, their conclusions are not what you think. Matthius Strasser and Carmen-Pia Gunther observed patterns in larval supply of predators and prey after a series of consecutive winters in which temperatures were severe, moderate or mild. Originally, the prevailing thought was that egg production increased after severe winters of many benthos, and this is why recruitment was higher in the following spring. However, their research indicates that the numbers and peaks in recruitment were actually highest in the mild winter. So why isn't recruitment highest during these years? Their theory, a mismatch in the predator and prey larval supply. After severe winters there is a delay in the peak larval supply of the major predators, green crabs, of almost 6-8 weeks. This delay is not as apparent as their bivalve prey, and with the average larval time of the bivalves also being shorter, they settle much earlier than the green crabs and have a potential head start in growth. According to the researchers, this mismatch is what fuels observations of higher recruitment after severe winters.
An alternative scenario is one which was observed in Chesapeake Bay. Using local climate response variables Kimmel et al were able to demonstrate noticeable and significant differences in phytoplankton, copepod, gelatinous zooplankton and finfish abundances and composition between years with "wet" winters and years with "dry" winters. Essentially, wet winters led to an increase of freshwater flow and nutrients into the system, which resulted in higher phytoplankton, more copepods, more ctenophores and higher numbers of striped bass. In years of dry winters, there was less phytoplankton, more scyphomedusae and more menhaden. The basic premise is that the local climate had a significant impact on the community composition of Chesapeake Bay by controlling the amount of fresh water flux into the system.
Both are interesting reads, and the idea of the interplay between climate and marine ecology is one that is becoming even more important to understand with the current climate change scenarios. It is quite clear that atmospheric conditions and local climate can have a fairly significant impact on subsequent year classes - something baymen have been familiar with for decades, if not centuries, but something marine scientists have only been exploring for the past decade, give or take.
Strasser, M. (2001). Larval supply of predator and prey: temporal mismatch between crabs and bivalves after a severe winter in the Wadden Sea Journal of Sea Research, 46 (1), 57-67 DOI: 10.1016/S1385-1101(01)00063-6
Kimmel, D., Miller, W., Harding, L., Houde, E., & Roman, M. (2009). Estuarine Ecosystem Response Captured Using a Synoptic Climatology Estuaries and Coasts, 32 (3), 403-409 DOI: 10.1007/s12237-009-9147-y
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.