Seven students selected for Sea Grant Research Trainee program at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

Seven students from universities across Georgia have been selected to participate in the year-long Georgia Sea Grant Research Trainee program. The students will work with faculty and professional mentors to conduct marine research and gain new professional skills.

Research conducted by the trainees will address one or more of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s four focus areas: healthy coastal ecosystems, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, resilient communities and economies, and environmental literacy and workforce development.

“By pairing students with academic and professional mentors, and immersing them in interdisciplinary research experiences, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is helping prepare a diverse workforce for jobs in the future,” says Mona Behl, associate director of Georgia Sea Grant.

The trainees will design research projects that build on their dissertations or theses while connecting with extension and education specialists at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant who will help share their work with coastal communities. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a UGA Public Service unit.

Samantha Alvey

Samantha Alvey

Samantha Alvey is a master’s student in biology at Georgia Southern University. As part of her traineeship, she will be studying antibiotic resistance in coastal waters.

Bacteria are able to develop resistance to antibiotics and enter streams and rivers through wastewater discharge and runoff. These bacteria accumulate on river sediments where recreational activities, like fishing and boating, re-release the bacteria into the water where they can cause disease. Alvey will collect water and measure how the amount of antibiotic resistance bacteria changes when sediment is disturbed by human recreation. She will also examine the potential for the resistant bacteria to spread from rivers to the coast, which will be useful to inform water policy aimed at reducing ecological and public health risks.

“This program not only provides essential resources to support my research but also opportunities to communicate my findings to my peers and the public through conferences and public outreach events that I might not otherwise have access to during my graduate program,” Alvey said.


Courtney Balling

Courtney Balling

Courtney Balling, a Ph.D. student in the departments of Integrative Conservation and Geography at UGA, is researching the environmental drivers of septic system failure.

Coastal areas are especially at risk of septic system failure in the coming decades due to sea level rise and changes in rainfall patterns. Balling will look at how environmental conditions, like tidal fluctuation and precipitation, impact bacterial concentrations in groundwater near residential septic systems. This research will be shared with officials working in public health, wastewater, and planning to help create sustainable wastewater solutions for the future.

“I would love to be a part of an extension service. I truly enjoy research and community engagement, and extension would allow for both. This traineeship is allowing me to gather more of the skills I’ll need for that kind of work—everything from grant writing and research design to strategic communication and community partnership,” Balling said.


Jennifer Dorick

Jennifer Dorick

Jennifer Dorick is a Ph.D. student at UGA studying food science with a focus on food safety. Her project will focus on food safety hazards in aquaponics, a sustainable agricultural practice that integrates aquaculture and hydroponic farming.

Dorick will study a commercial aquaponics system, looking at what pathogens, like E.coli and salmonella enterica, are present and where they are most prevalent within the system. This research will provide more insight into foodborne pathogen risks in the aquaponics industry and will provide valuable information to other commercial aquaponics farms that could prevent the introduction of these pathogens in their systems.

“The traineeship will contribute to my research goals by funding a research field that is creating an innovative and sustainable method to produce fresh food sources to urban, rural, and food desert areas in Georgia,” Dorick said.


Monét Murphy

Monét Murphy

Monét Murphy is an undergraduate student pursuing a double major in marine science and environmental science at Savannah State University. Her project will involve studying benthic foraminifera in the Savannah River Estuary. Benthic foraminifera are tiny, single-celled organisms that can serve as bioindicators of environmental conditions in marine environments, including natural variability and human impacts. They are generally well preserved in the fossil record.

As part of her project, Murphy will study foraminifera distribution and abundance in samples collected before, during and after the deepening of the Savannah River harbor. This research will determine if the upstream extension of saline waters due to Savannah harbor deepening has impacted foraminifera distribution and if these changes have the potential to be impacted in the sediment record.

“The traineeship program will help me better communicate my results, the importance of benthic foraminifera, and the impacts of harbor deepening to stakeholders and how the study of the fossil record informs us of the range of past climatic, coastal and oceanographic conditions,” Murphy said.


Alexandra Muscalus

Alexandra Muscalus

Alexandra Muscalus is a Ph.D. student in the Ocean Science and Engineering program at Georgia Tech. Her research focuses on hydrodynamics and coastal impacts of the wake generated by container ships, which pose public safety hazards and have been linked to rapid shoreline erosion along shipping channels.

Muscalus will study sites in the Savannah River to measure the wave characteristics and energy of ship wake in the main shipping channel as well as nearby secondary channels. Her research will be beneficial in providing new information for coastal managers when it comes to mitigating impacts of low-frequency wakes on shorelines.

“The traineeship will allow me to conclude my thesis work in a way that transforms my previous findings into meaningful and actionable results for stakeholders. At the same time, it will provide a means for me to interact with stakeholder groups and help me decide in which specific direction I would like to take my career,” Muscalus said.


Sarah Roney

Sarah Roney

Sarah Roney is a Ph.D. student in the Ocean Science and Engineering program at Georgia Tech. Her traineeship will involve researching how different types of organic compounds identified from predator waste products can improve how oysters defend themselves against predation.

Working with researchers at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Shellfish Research Lab, Roney will introduce two organic compounds in a hatchery system that have been shown to induce defensive responses in oysters. The goal is to produce a stronger, well-defended oyster that can increase the success of restored reefs and living shorelines as well as the productivity of farmed oysters, enhancing oyster restoration practices as well as oyster mariculture efforts.

“With the trainee program, I can work with not only my academic and scientific advisor, Marc Weissburg, but also the director of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Shellfish Research Lab, Tom Bliss, learning about the ins-and-outs of the shellfish industry in Georgia and the ways scientific research can be beneficial and applicable to the trade,” Roney said.


Megan Tomamichel

Megan Tomamichel

Megan Tomamichel is a Ph.D. student at UGA’s Odum School of Ecology researching black gill disease in shrimp. Her project involves developing a stock assessment model of shrimp populations that incorporates black gill transmission and harvesting strategies under ongoing oceanic warming.

The model will account for the impacts of black gill on shrimp, and it can be used to inform management strategies for shrimp harvest under changing environmental conditions.

“I was interested in applying to the Georgia Sea Grant Research Trainee program to support my current research addressing a disease of concern in Georgia fisheries. This program aligns with my goals to use science as a tool to help support the people and ecosystems of the Georgia Coast,” Tomamichel said.

UGA graduate students selected as Knauss finalists

Two graduate students from the University of Georgia have been selected as finalists for the 2022 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, sponsored by the National Sea Grant College Program. The finalists will spend one year in Washington, D.C. in marine policy-related positions in legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

The students will join 74 finalists in the 2022 class representing 28 of the 34 Sea Grant programs in the coastal and Great Lakes states and territories.

The finalists from Georgia are:

Rebecca Adkins, 2022 Knauss Finalist

Rebecca Atkins, 2022 Knauss Finalist

Rebecca Atkins, who is working towards her Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology. For her dissertation project, Atkins is exploring spatial patterns in snail-plant interactions within salt marshes from Florida to Delaware. She holds a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation and a minor in fisheries and aquatic studies from the University of Florida.




Chandler Countryman, 2022 Knauss Finalist

Chandler Countryman, 2022 Knauss Finalist

Chandler Countryman, a Ph.D. student in marine sciences at the University of Georgia and is studying the oceanic biological carbon pump. Countryman is also earning a certificate in water resources to better understand the human dimensions of environmental issues and the role that government plays in allocating resources. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Northern Michigan University.




The 2022 Knauss finalists will become the 43rd class of the fellowship and will join a group of almost 1,500 professionals who have received hands-on experiences transferring science to policy and management through the program.

Placement of 2022 Knauss finalists as fellows is contingent on adequate funding in Fiscal Year 2022.

The National Sea Grant College Program announced finalists for the 2022 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships. Here is a link to the national release.

Donations to the UGA Shellfish Research Lab upgrade the facility and allow for expanded operations

The UGA Shellfish Research Lab can increase oyster production, as well as produce more algae to feed the baby oysters, thanks to new water tanks and a concrete pad to hold the tanks donated to Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

The 24 x 24-foot concrete water storage pad was donated by Peeples Industries, Inc., and poured next to the shellfish research facility at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on Skidaway Island.

Photo of tanks at the Marine Extension hatchery

Water collected in the donated tanks will be used to grow algae in tanks outside the lab.

The pad holds three 10,000-gallon water tanks and a 2,000-gallon tank that were donated by the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, also on Skidaway Island.

With the new holding tanks, the Shellfish Research Lab can now bring in up to 10,000 gallons of water daily from the Skidaway River that will be used for the lab’s oyster hatchery. The water in the tanks will settle for 24 to 48 hours before being pumped into smaller tanks in the hatchery where larval algae and oyster seed are kept.

“In the water, we have a lot of fine particulate matter, such as different types of sediments and detritus,” said Tom Bliss, director of the Shellfish Research Lab. “Those tanks allow the water to sit very still and [the sediment] slowly settles down to the bottom, so it’s more efficient for us to do water changes.”

The tanks will also be used to supply water to the algae tanks, which play a crucial role in oyster growth. Extension specialists at the lab started growing algae three years ago to supplement store-bought and natural food used to feed the oysters. The new water tanks will allow the team to expand algae production and increase the amount of food available to the oysters.

Baby oysters in the hatchery rely on water brought in from the Skidaway River. The holding tanks will allow for increased oyster production in the hatchery.

Baby oysters in the hatchery rely on water brought in from the Skidaway River. The holding tanks will allow for increased oyster production in the hatchery.

According to Bliss, the tanks not only give them the flexibility to expand production by using more of their available resources, but they also act as a safety net should storms knock out the lab’s power. The tanks are able to supply almost a week’s worth of backup water supply in the event of a power outage.

Thanks to the donation, the concrete pad and new holding tanks were placed just in time for oyster spawning season, which will allow the lab to produce more oysters and algae this spring.

Future teachers and elementary school students learn about wetland ecology

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is working with students at the College of Coastal Georgia to monitor a freshwater wetland adjacent to a local elementary school and develop educational lesson plans on wetland ecology for elementary and middle school students.

Katy Smith assists two students of Oglethorpe Elementary School in monitoring the wetlands on their school's property.

Smith (left) explains how the rain gauge monitors rainfall at the wetland.

“Freshwater wetlands in coastal regions provide important habitat and resources for wildlife as well as ecosystem services that benefit humans, like water filtration and buffering against flooding and storm surge,” said Katy Smith, water quality program coordinator at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “This project will allow us to study this habitat, learn from it and encourage stewardship of these areas for the benefit of wildlife and humans alike.”

As part of the project, which is funded by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, Smith teamed up with College of Coastal Georgia faculty, James Deemy, lecturer of environmental science, and Amy Sneed, assistant professor, to provide experiential training for undergraduates at the college.

Deemy and Smith are working together to advise students who are pursuing a degree in science to carry out research activities at the site.

Kayla Russo, a rising senior at the College of Coastal Georgia, learned about the wetland project during her hydrology class and decided to assist with weekly monitoring.

“I was taking different water measurements, like conductivity, turbidity, and also running soil moisture transects,” said Russo, who is majoring in environmental science. “I was enjoying the stuff I was doing in-class, which was limited because we didn’t have all of the instruments, so I was able to go more in-depth through the [wetland] program.”

The baseline monitoring data on the wetland is being incorporated into lesson plans developed by senior-level teacher candidates at College of Coastal Georgia, with guidance from Sneed who coordinates middle grade and secondary education.

During the first year of the project, six lesson plans were developed that cover hydrology and soils, water chemistry, plant classification, environmental impact, and wildlife life cycles and habitat.

The lessons are being piloted by students participating in Oglethorpe Point Elementary School’s Marsh Lab program, which is led by Karen Garrett, who teaches at the school. As part of the program, Garrett works with all grade levels to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it outdoors through interactive experiences.

Katy Smith assists students in monitoring the wetlands by their elementary school.

Garrett shows students how to measure water temperature and document the results as part of an interactive education activity.

“I take their science curriculum and make it come to life,” Garrett said. “Since they can’t do hands-on science experiments in the classroom due to time constraints, they come to me every other week and we do experiments.”

With the new lesson plans, the students are learning about topics like water clarity, amphibians, soils and trees using real data collected by the college students. They are also able to conduct experiments in the wetland using some of the research equipment, like a rain gauge, that was set up by the college students.

According to Garrett, engaging students in the natural world encourages them to use scientific inquiry, investigation and exploration to complement their science curriculum. Having the students work through lessons that are directly connected to this important habitat at their school will help foster a sense of stewardship of this natural resource.

“They’re able to see the wetland and how it can be affected by their actions, so hopefully they can take that and create ideas for future actions or create their own opinions on environmental issues,” says Garrett.

The project has also supported summer interns to carry out some of the objectives. During the summer of 2020, Samantha Lance, a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, created a series of teaching materials such as middle school lesson plans, educational activities about freshwater wetlands and climate change, an Instagram story and a coloring book featuring wetland plants and animals.

During the summer of 2021, Hunter Molock, a rising senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, will illustrate and design a series of educational signs to enhance the Discovery Trail at Oglethorpe Point Elementary School. The final signs will highlight wildlife, habitats and more, and will be installed during the fall of 2021.

“The overarching goal of this project is to foster appreciation and conservation of coastal freshwater wetlands,” Smith said. “We hope the resources created during the project will provide students with continuing opportunities to learn about, study and protect this important habitat.”

Community science supports environmental research

You don’t have to be a professional scientist with an advanced degree to make a meaningful contribution to scientific research. That is one conclusion of a recent paper by Dodie Sanders, an educator at the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Jay Brandes. The article was published in the winter issue of Current: The Journal of Marine Education.

The paper focuses on the researchers’ use of “community scientists” in a project to study the extent of microplastic pollution on the Georgia coast. The community scientists are volunteers, without extensive training or graduate degrees in the field.

The initiative began in 2018 when Brandes and Sanders were faced with the daunting task of collecting monthly water samples at 12 different sites along the Georgia coast, but without a large team to conduct the field work. The previous summer, a UGA undergraduate student, Jacob Mabrey, demonstrated that using community scientists to fill the gap might be the answer. Mabrey spent the summer traveling up and down the coast and collected dozens of samples.
Sanders and Brandes wanted to know whether community science could play a significant role in scientific research. They started with a model developed by the University of Florida microplastics project, Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.

“We took that model and adapted it to what we thought we needed here on the Georgia coast,” Sanders said.

Marine Educator Dodie Sanders

Sanders and Brandes initially approached the Satilla, Altamaha and Ogeechee Riverkeeper groups, who conduct monthly water tests in their areas already. The riverkeeper groups gladly joined the project. Sanders and Brandes then expanded to include a small group of volunteers who were working with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on the Skidaway Island campus.

“It’s worked out great because we have a group of volunteers that are very interested in learning more about this global issue,” Sanders said. “But more importantly, they’re interested in doing something about it. And so, this afforded an opportunity for volunteers to come in and not only help us do the science, but also become advocates for the project and advocates for what we were trying to accomplish.”

Roger Cayer is one community scientist volunteer. “I feel like studies like this are important to raise the awareness level of the general population about plastic pollution,” he said. “Who would have thought that synthetic clothing would become such a major problem?”

Brandes is very careful to avoid using the term “amateur” to describe the team of volunteers. “I think, sometimes, there can be a negative connotation to that word, but the people who have been working on this project have been wonderful and very dedicated.”

He said that everyone involved understands the critical importance of proper research technique, strict protocols and training in order to obtain believable data.

Volunteers collect water samples for microplastics.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the field work for the past 12 months. As Brandes said, it is difficult to socially distance on a 24 foot Carolina skiff.

Sanders and Brandes would like to see their work benefit other researchers and community scientists. The overarching concept of the article is to provide a model that other researchers can put to work elsewhere.

“Take community science, and its advantages, and its bonuses and how people can be an integral, an important part of scientific research, because they are force multipliers,” Sanders said. “They allow us to do so much more on such a larger scale than we would be able to do on a day-to-day basis.”

Sanders said the community scientists opened her eyes to how the public is interested in environmental issues, especially issues that are in their own backyard. And they want to be advocates.

“So that’s been a rewarding aspect of this project, to not only get to know the volunteers or the community scientists on a personal level, but to realize their passion for the work is just as great as our passion,” she said.

That passion is echoed by Cayer who said he has enjoyed “the camaraderie, the laughs, the sharing of knowledge and ideas. And getting to know each member on a deeper level by sharing a common passion and goals.”

The entire paper can be found here.

Published by Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant addresses flooding issues at Camden County Extension office

UGA’s Cooperative Extension office in Camden County has experienced its fair share of soaked floors and wet shoes. When it rained, water streamed into the building.

UGA’s Cooperative Extension office in Camden County is home to the new bioretention cell.

Fortunately, these days the floors remain dry thanks to the installation of a new stormwater management practice that alleviates flooding and serves as an educational tool for visitors.

In 2019, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant teamed up with the Camden County Extension office and the Camden County Department of Public Works to find a solution to the flooding. The fix was a bioretention cell that captures and treats runoff by mimicking the natural water cycle.

“A bioretention cell is a landscape depression that is designed to hold the rain for about 24 to 48 hours to slowly allow the water to seep back into the ground,” said Jessica Brown, stormwater specialist for Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, who led the project.

As stormwater flows over surfaces like the parking lot outside of the extension office, it picks up pollutants and carries those to streams and larger waterways, degrading water quality, Brown said. The bioretention cell limits the amount of runoff, keeping nearby bodies of water clean.

A bioretention cell is a stormwater management practice that helps mitigate flooding risks by layering organic materials such as sand, top soil, gravel, mulch and plants.

Brown first learned about the flooding issues from Jessica Warren, Camden County Extension agriculture and natural resources agent, who is based at the facility Woodbine, Georgia.

“Our office had some flooding issues when we had heavy rainstorms, or severe weather events, since the parking lot is slightly graded towards our building,” said Warren. “We would have water come in the doors and saturate areas in the office, so you would see it standing several inches up on the foundation of the building.”

UGA PSO Scholar Jake Forcier talks with Brown about his plans for the bioretention cell. Photo taken prior to February 2020.

With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the assistance of a UGA student studying biochemical engineering, Brown designed and oversaw the installation of the bioretention cell.

The project was a valuable experiential learning opportunity for Jake Forcier, a UGA Public Service and Outreach Student Scholar interning with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

Brown “truly set me up for success and allowed me to put my best foot forward in my first engineering project outside of school,” Forcier said. “Going out there and seeing all my calculations being used to properly dig the bioretention cell was a really cool experience.”

Camden County’s Public Works Road Crew helps prepare the plot of land for the installation of the bioretention cell. Photo taken prior to February 2020.

Camden County’s Public Works Road Crew provided the tools and construction assistance for the installation. They worked alongside Warren and Brown to excavate the area and add sand and topsoil to form the base layer of the bioretention cell. Mulch, rocks and gravel form the second layer, and a variety of native plants including swamp sunflower, blue ageratum and blue-eyed grass were planted on top.

While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the progress of the project, the bioretention cell was fully installed and functioning by the end of 2020. The native plants have been established in the area, and two rain barrels donated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Division have been installed. The final step of the project is to create and display educational signage at the site in 2021.

Brown and Warren plant various native plants in the cell.

“We will hopefully have an open house and some educational events that will help give people examples and a demonstration of what they could do with their landscape issues, [such as] how to better integrate native plants or how to manage stormwater issues in their landscape,” said Warren.

The project, which was recently awarded the Four for the Future award by Georgia Trend and UGA Public Service and Outreach, has also opened the door for the Camden County Extension office to serve as an example for other communities in coastal Georgia experiencing similar issues.

Warren (pictured on the left) and Brown (pictured on the right) partnered together to create the bioretention cell that will serve as an educational tool for community members.

2020 Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Annual Report

UGA partners with fishing industry to expand market while protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is working with commercial fishermen to test advanced gear that could expand their catch while protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The ropeless fishing gear would allow boats easier access to black sea bass, which are caught using pots that are lowered to the ocean floor with vertical fishing lines connected to floats that sit on top of the water. Fishermen set those pots for a period of time before retrieving the pots and lines at the end of each trip.

Currently, from November to April the fishing boats have to go about 30 miles offshore to set their pots in order to avoid the right whales that migrate south during the winter to calve. That makes the trip more expensive and more dangerous.

“The use of ropeless gear could potentially remove nearly all entanglement risks to the whales and other marine animals,” says Bryan Fluech, associate director of extension at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

From New England to Florida, researchers and fishermen are exploring ways to adapt their gear to spare the right whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries estimates that 85% of right whales have become entangled in fishing gear at least once. NOAA has identified two areas critical for right whales: off the coast of New England, where the whales forage for food in warmer months; and off the southeast coast from North Carolina to Florida, where the whales reproduce between November and April.

Fluech prepares a ropeless fishing device for deployment.

Fluech is collaborating with Kim Sawicki, project lead and doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth. Sawicki serves as the president of Sustainable Seas Technology, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the use of innovation and technology in the safe and sustainable harvest of seafood.

In the summer of 2020, the research team secured a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to test eight different ropeless gear systems with black sea bass pots off the coast of Georgia. It was the first time the ropeless gear had been tested in the South Atlantic.

“It’s nice to know that for this area, we’re really on the front end of this,” Fluech says.

Each gear type is rigged, deployed, and retrieved in a different way. Some devices use lines stored on spools or in bags or traps that sit on the ocean floor. Others have inflatable lift bags or buoys that float the pots to the surface. The devices are triggered by acoustic technology or timers that activate their release.

Fishermen use fishery-specific GPS software to locate the pots from above water.

“Normally you would just have a line and buoy in the water 24-7, but what we have to do is purposely tell these devices when to release the line and buoy and then we simply drive up to it, and keep fishing as normal,” Sawicki says.

Retrieving the gear takes less than two minutes and the fishing vessels stay within 20-30 feet of the line and traps during the retrieval process, leaving little opportunity for the whales to become entangled, a problem that has nearly eliminated the right whale. Only about 360 remain in existence in the wild, according to NOAA.

Fluech and Sawicki tested the devices alongside local fishermen, who provided boats and crew for the field experiments. This relationship has been the key to determining the practicality of the gear.

“Is it time effective? How long will it take for the average fisher to learn to use these gears?” Sawicki says. “We wanted to look at all of the issues surrounding the use of this gear through this very particular fishery.”

Throughout the testing period, the research team leaned on commercial fishermen for their institutional knowledge and feedback.

“The project, it holds merit in my eyes,” says Bill Nutt, a fisherman from Deland, Florida, who recently got back into commercial fishing after a 20-year hiatus. Nutt volunteered his time for the project, working as a mate on one of the fishing vessels the team used to conduct field studies.

“You definitely don’t want to endanger the whales, but you’ve got to make a living, so the devices have to be cost effective,” he says. “If there’s something you can do, you should do it.”

Next steps for the project team include reporting their findings to NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council early this year, and hopefully obtaining funds for additional trials and research.

“We hope this pilot study will serve as a catalyst for more formalized research into the application of this gear as an approved gear that would ultimately allow these fishermen to fish in areas that are currently restricted,” Fluech says. “At the end of the day if we can show that this gear is efficient and these guys can still catch fish and protect the whales, that might be incentive to grow the fishery and still meet conservation goals.”

Writer: Emily Kenworthy, 912-598-2348 ext. 107, ekenworthy@uga.edu
Contact: Bryan Fluech, 912-264-7269, fluech@uga.edu

UGA partners with Okefenokee swamp to conserve and protect native alligators

A partnership between University of Georgia researchers and the Okefenokee Swamp Park focuses on conservation and education efforts needed to maintain the swamp’s native alligator population, which is vital to the economic vitality of the region.

On Aug. 27, UGA’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and the Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP) signed a commitment to continue its Alligator Education and Research Project, work that informs the OSP on conservation and management of the swamp, provides a better understanding of alligators, and enhances wildlife education.

“Applied research like this project in south Georgia is helping communities throughout the state address critical, local challenges,” said Jennifer Frum, vice president for UGA Public Service and Outreach. “This is a great example of how UGA is fulfilling its mission as Georgia’s land-grant and sea-grant institution.”

The OSP first began funding the project in 2017 and since then UGA scientists have conducted field research in the swamp, located on the Georgia-Florida border, to inventory the current alligator population by sex, age and size.

“The American alligator remains a conservation concern for a number of reasons, including human persecution and loss of native habitat,” said ecologist Kimberly Andrews, a faculty member with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “It is important for us to understand how these reptiles are adapting to survive in a human-dominated environment.”

Graduate student Kristen Zemaitis radio-tracking an alligator at Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Graduate student Kristen Zemaitis radio-tracking an alligator at Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Using satellite tags and cameras Andrews and her team at UGA have tracked seven adult alligators in the swamp, observing interactions between the sexes and age classes, courtship between males and females, maternal care and interaction with other species, such as bears or otters.

They regularly survey areas of the swamp to get approximate counts of the alligators there and their activity levels during day and night, from season to season and under changing environmental conditions.

So far, their research has shown that adult females and their guarded young, ages one to three years, are typically the most visible while the males are on the move and the mid-size subadults are more covert. Alligator activity and their visibility in the swamp is influenced by social structure and the presence of dominant individuals and changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature and rainfall.

The UGA researchers have collected tissues samples from every animal they have caught at the Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross. These samples will reveal more of the story about the swamp alligator’s diet and family tree.

“We are excited to renew our partnership with Dr. Andrews and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant,” said Dr. William Clark, an ophthalmologist in Waycross and chair of the OSP Board of Trustees. “So far, the results of the alligator research have already changed the way many people view this apex predator and we look forward to increasing our collaboration for years to come.”

Hatchling alligators form “pods” that are guarded by the mother. Photo: Michael Lavery

Alligators are a conservation success story: they were the first species to be listed federally as an endangered species. Alligator farming replaced the overharvesting from the wild that caused their decline and alligator populations began to rebound.

Alligators are apex predators, consuming a diversity of food sources and regulating prey populations. At the swamp, researchers have seen that a single adult alligator may eat prey that range in size from a moth to a deer. When alligators are lost from a system, this balance is lost and the ecosystem instability impacts many other species, including people who rely on predators to manage prey populations, such as deer, that pose risk to our safety when overabundant.

Alligators are the engineers of their economy, creating habitat that is used by other smaller animals. During drought, alligators create “wallows” or use den sites that retain water after it becomes scarce in other areas. These wallows can be critical for breeding habitat for frogs. The loss of alligators in some ecosystems has contributed to subsequent declines in amphibian populations in many of their habitats where they have been removed.

The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, serving as the headwaters of the St. Mary’s and Suwanee rivers. Most of the swamp is located in Southeastern Georgia and is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the state. Protected largely by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Okefenokee Wilderness, the swamp has an array of habitats including cypress swamps, peat bogs, marshes, open lakes and wooded hammocks. The diversity of ecosystems encompasses an assortment of over 620 plant species (including four carnivorous plant species), 39 fish, 37 amphibian, 64 reptile, 234 bird and 50 mammal species.

Learn more about the project at https://gacoast.uga.edu/research/major-projects/alligator-research/

Learn more about the Okefenokee Swamp at https://okeswamp.com

Three students selected to participate in the Georgia Sea Grant State Fellowship

Three graduate students will be serving the Georgia coast and community as Georgia Sea Grant State Fellows. The Georgia Sea Grant State Fellowship Program provides recent graduates the unique opportunity to acquire hands-on experience in the planning and implementation of coastal and marine policies in Georgia.

By coming alongside select host local, state and federal agencies, this fellowship increases the partner’s capacity, promotes integration of diverse perspectives into problem-solving for Georgia to provide richer and more inclusive solutions while training and developing the next generation of coastal and marine leaders.

“Our State Fellowship program continues to draw an incredibly well-rounded and diverse talent pool. We are excited to expand our State Fellowship program to include three host offices this year. In collaboration with our partners, we look forward to nurturing the professional growth and development of the next generation of marine science leaders,” said director Mark Risse.

The three positions available to the applicants were made possible by partnerships with Georgia Audubon in collaboration with Jekyll Island, Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division.

Meet the 2020-21 Georgia Sea Grant State Fellows:

Sergio Sabat-Bonilla

Sergio Sabat-Bonilla

Sergio Sabat-Bonilla graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in biology. Now as a master’s student at Georgia Southern University, he is studying how aquatic macroinvertebrate communities will respond to the hydrological variations in wetlands of the coastal plain. As the State Fellow working with Georgia Aubudon and Jekyll Island, he will be tasked with getting the diverse communities in the southern region of Georgia engaged in the enjoyment and conservation of birds. He’ll also be focusing in part on expanding shorebird monitoring efforts on Jekyll Island with ongoing support from the Jekyll Island Foundation. He is most interested in helping make the Georgia coastline more engaging and inclusive, so that any individual can enjoy the diverse ecosystems that shape the Georgia landscape while learning the effect humans’ lives have on the system and what they can do to conserve it.

“With my career goal of becoming a researcher and science communicator, this fellowship is the ideal opportunity to help me develop my science communication skills while pursuing a personal goal of aiding in the efforts to provide minorities and communities of color with the knowledge and resources to enjoy and explore the environments that surround them.”


Cristin Archer

Cristin Archer

Cristin Archer graduated from Allegheny College with degrees in biology and environmental science and a minor in psychology. As a marine science master’s student at Savannah State University, she is analyzing the factors influencing the human-interaction behaviors of common bottlenose dolphins. Archer will be serving as the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s Sanctuary Program Specialist. In this position, she will responsible for advancing several science, policy and planning projects and programs while gaining the diverse skills and professional experience that are needed to pursue a career in natural resource management. She is most looking forward to developing a scientific plan to help manage marine and conservation as well as building upon her scientific diving experience.

“Understanding policy is an important skill for any job or career, but it will be especially beneficial as I hope to work in marine sanctuaries and help with education and conservation in the future. Not everyone gets to grow up next to the ocean, but we should all understand our connection to it; how it impacts us and plays a part in controlling how we impact it.”


Meghan Angelina

Meghan Angelina

Meghan Angelina, a graduate from the University of Tampa with a degree in marine science-biology and minors in chemistry and environmental science, graduated from Clemson University with a master’s in August where she studied the environmental drivers of southern flounder growth, condition and juvenile recruitment in an estuary along the Gulf of Mexico. Angelina is working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division in their Georgia Coastal Management Program (GCMP). In this role, she will be tasked with conducting flood literacy research, developing flood literacy materials, conducting outreach and displaying and disseminating results. She is looking forward to working alongside diverse stakeholders and gaining first-hand experience in policy and management.

“My career goals are to work for an agency that actively pursues advancements in marine policy that contribute to various ecosystems, and the humans that live nearby. I want to work for an agency where I can inspire the community and promote the value of marine and coastal resources. The Georgia Sea Grant State Fellowship will give me the experience I need to advance to these next steps in my career.”

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