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Student researchers will study issues facing Georgia’s coastal ecosystems

Five graduate students from the University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University and Georgia Tech have been selected to lead year-long coastal research projects as part of the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship. This marks the fourth year of the traineeship, which has supported a total of 26 students from universities across Georgia since its launch in 2019.

“The research traineeship allows students to apply their knowledge and identify solutions to real world issues facing Georgia’s coastal communities,” says Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “The experience of designing and executing their own project prepares them for future careers in a variety of disciplines.”

As part of the traineeship, students conduct independent research projects that address one 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.

The students conduct these projects while being advised by university mentors. They also work with extension and education specialists at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to collaborate and share their research with coastal communities.

 

Chestina Craig

Chestina Craig is a master’s student in biology at Georgia Southern University where she’s studying stress levels in sharks that are captured or handled.

As part of her traineeship, she will study how capture and handling affects the physiological response and overall fitness of sharks local to Georgia. She will also be looking at the use of cost-effective research devices that can immediately measure blood stress levels in sharks when sampled in the field.

Results from her project aim to inform handling practices and increase the accessibility of this type of research using affordable sampling methods.

“I decided to apply to the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship because it combines my love of research and community outreach into an incredibly rewarding fellowship. I knew that this program would give me opportunities to interact with stakeholders, conduct scientific outreach, and work with researchers that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to during the course of my master’s degree,” Craig said.

 

Jennifer Dorick

Jennifer Dorick

Jennifer Dorick is a Ph.D. candidate at UGA studying food science with a focus on food safety. This will be her second research traineeship and this year’s project will focus on identifying mitigation methods used in aquaculture and aquaponic facilities to control A. hydrophila, a bacterial pathogen that can cause disease in freshwater fish and humans.

Dorick completed a 2-year evaluation of a commercial aquaponics system and found A. hydrophila throughout the system. Now, she will study whether A. hydrophila identified in the system can form biofilm in aquaponic water and on common aquaponic material. She will identify targeted interventions to disrupt A. hydrophila colonization while preserving the nitrifying bacteria critical for nutrient cycling in these systems.

“The traineeship will contribute to my research goals by funding research to develop sustainable agriculture methods to produce fresh food sources for Georgia. By identifying mitigation methods to target A. hydrophila, it will encourage the safety of fish and produce generated by these farms,” Dorick said.

 

Sarah Roney

Sarah Roney, a Ph.D. student in the Ocean Science and Engineering program at Georgia Tech, is studying oyster reef restoration using naturally strengthened oysters to prevent erosion on Georgia’s shorelines. 

Roney, who has been selected for the traineeship program for a second year, will conduct a study that builds on her previous project looking at how chemical cues from blue crabs can increase the shell strength of oysters. Results from her 2021 project show that strengthened oysters on restored reefs have a greater survival against predation than other juvenile oysters. For this year’s project, Roney will use strengthened oysters to restore reefs in high wave energy areas, like the Intercoastal Waterway and South Channel of the Savannah River. She selected these sites based on research by fellow 2021-2022 research trainee, Alexandra Muscalus, whose research shows that there is significant ship wake energy in these areas due to shipping traffic to and from the Savannah ports. 

Roney plans to enhance reefs in this area using strengthened oysters with the goal of preventing future coastal erosion while also restoring important services that oyster reefs provide to coastal ecosystems and communities. 

“Working with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant in the past allowed me to form connections with industry professionals and learn new applications for my research topics, so I’m excited to continue our partnership this year. I hope that by implementing new scientific research to systems that majorly benefit our communities, such as oyster reefs, and making scientific information accessible to the public, we can improve the communication pathways between scientists and citizens,” Roney said. 

 

Conner Simon

Conner Simon is a master’s student at Georgia Southern University where he is studying microplastic contamination in marine and freshwater systems. 

As part of his traineeship project, Simon will examine the abundance of microplastic fibers along the Ogeechee River and use both laboratory and field experiments to investigate the effects of microplastic fiber contamination on zooplankton. Zooplankton are an important food source for larger organisms, like recreational fish and shellfish, in nearly all freshwater and marine habitats. Simon will determine whether the length of microplastic fibers influences how harmful they are to zooplankton, and which zooplankton species are present in the community.

Findings will provide insight into how sensitive these important marine organisms are to microplastic contaminants and can be used to inform water policies that limit microplastic pollution.

“Through this traineeship, I will improve my ability to design, conduct, analyze, and present research on microplastic pollution, which will help me produce important results for scientists and water quality experts. The combination of academic and outreach training will prepare me to translate the results of future research both to a broad audience and into actionable steps towards effective marine conservation and stewardship,” Simon said.

 

Alexandra Theisen

Alexandra Theisen, a master’s student at Georgia Southern University, is studying aquatic species and how they interact with their environment, specifically the two-toed Amphiuma, a large aquatic salamander found in Southeast U.S. wetlands. 

Theisen’s project will compare Amphiuma populations sampled in freshwater wetlands at Fort Stewart Army Base to those sampled in fresh and saline wetlands on Sapelo Island. By comparing the two populations, she will be able to examine how Amphiumas on Sapelo Island are adapting to more saline wetlands. 

Her research has implications for how species in freshwater habitats will respond to rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. It will also inform planning, research and resource management needs at Fort Stewart Army Base and at Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve where her research sites are located. 

“My professional goal is to work at either a nonprofit organization or at a state level as a wetland ecologist. This traineeship will help me achieve this goal by enabling me to attend networking opportunities and provide the means to enhance my research project with the help of these partners. It also gives me the opportunity to share my research with the community as well as learn from other experts in the field,” Theisen said. 

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.

UGA Shellfish Research Lab expands algae research and production

Raising millions of baby oysters takes a lot of hard work. Just ask Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s aquaculture extension agents based at the UGA Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway Island. Since 2015, the shellfish team has been producing single oysters and working with shellfish farmers on the Georgia coast who grow them to market size oysters.

A large part of growing oysters in the hatchery requires feeding them a nutritious diet that consists of algae. In the beginning, researchers at the lab would purchase algae food from outside vendors or depend on natural sources of algae coming in from the Skidaway River, but a few years ago, Aquaculture Extension Specialist Rob Hein started experimenting with growing his own algae culture at the lab to supplement the store bought and natural food.

“It’s so much cheaper and better quality,” says Hein, who’s become the lab’s in-house algologist. “I think what prompted it was traveling to other hatcheries and seeing how they operate. I have been slowly expanding every year.”

Large outdoor algae tanks sit outside the UGA Shellfish Research Lab.

Hein’s experimental algae research has since turned into a larger scale algae operation. The lab has retrofitted space at the hatchery to make room for large algae tanks, both inside and outside. Thanks to fundraising efforts through Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s annual Oyster Roast for a Reason, the lab has been able to acquire several flat bottom algae tanks that can hold up to 5,100 gallons of algae. Having larger tanks for algae culture in an environmentally controlled space has greatly increased the reliability of the cultures, meaning they now have a more consistent source of highly nutritious food for the oysters.

“We’ve been able to increase the amount of food that we can provide to the nursery, greatly improving survival and growth while reducing costs,” Hein says.

Hein and the rest of the team are now growing a variety of live algae species that are fed to the oysters at different stages of their life cycle. The Shellfish Lab currently operates the only oyster hatchery in Georgia, but the team hopes to share what they have learned about algae culture with new hatcheries that become established on the coast.

“Every strain, let alone every species, has a slightly different nutrient profile and slightly different habitat tolerances. It is kind of a balancing act to produce complete nutrition for the oysters while maximizing growth rates based on the environmental conditions and water quality that changes throughout the year,” he says. “We are looking forward to using our new algae tanks as we continue to make our hatchery more efficient at producing oyster seed for the industry.”

Georgia Sea Grant awards funding for seven coastal research projects

The Georgia Sea Grant College Program at the University of Georgia has announced funding for seven new projects that will advance coastal science in Georgia. The diverse projects include investigations into policy barriers related to oyster aquaculture, tidal river flooding in upland communities, the development of artificial bait for the commercial blue crab fishery, impacts of black gill on shrimp, oyster pathogens, and the function of salt marsh ecosystems.

The projects are part of Georgia Sea Grant’s request for proposals process, which occurs every two years to address research priorities identified by coastal stakeholders.

This year, Georgia Sea Grant is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Acidification to fund a project looking at whether sediments increase or decrease the susceptibility of Georgia’s coastal waters to ocean acidification.

“By leveraging our federal partnerships, we can expand coastal research that addresses Georgia stakeholder concerns,” said Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “These projects will help coastal communities, allow resource managers to plan and implement better policies, and engage scientists throughout Georgia in applied research and outreach.

The two-year projects include researchers from five universities in the state, including: The University of Georgia, Savannah State University, Georgia College, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia Southern University.

The 2020-2022 research projects and the lead investigators are:

  • Optimizing Georgia’s Shrimp Fishery in the Age of Black Gill – Marc Frischer, University of Georgia
  • Addressing Policy Barriers and Promoting Opportunities for the Success of Oyster Aquaculture in Georgia – Scott Pippin, University of Georgia
  • Tidal Channel Network Dynamics and Salt Marsh Ecosystem Functioning along the Georgia Coast – Amanda Spivak, University of Georgia
  • Expanded Head of Tide Determination of Georgia’s Coastal Rivers: Influences of Upland Riverine Flooding, Tidal Inundation, and Stochastic/Storm-surge Events – Christopher Hintz, Savannah State University
  • Field Testing a New Synthetic Sustainable Bait for Georgia’s Blue Crab Fishing Industry – Charles Derby, Georgia College
  • Role of Sediments in the Susceptibility to Ocean Acidification in Coastal Habitats – Martial Taillefert, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • How do Environmental Conditions and Oyster Population Genetics Influence Pathogen Prevalence and Intensity? – John Carroll, Georgia Southern University

Information about Georgia Sea Grant research topics, funding and current opportunities can be found at https://gacoast.uga.edu/research/funding/current-projects/

UGA scientists investigate marine murder mystery

A team of University of Georgia investigators is working on a murder mystery, not your everyday who-done-it, but one in which the investigators are scientists, and the victims are thousands of tiny oyster larvae.

The mystery began the in the summer of 2017 at the UGA Shellfish Research Laboratory, a unit of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on Skidaway Island near Savannah.The shellfish lab is leading a movement to develop oyster aquaculture in Georgia and operates the state’s only oyster hatchery.

One day, as they frequently do, the oyster hatchery team changed the water in the tanks containing oyster larvae. The team pumped water from the Skidaway River behind the lab and ran it through filters before introducing it to the larvae tanks. At this stage in their life cycle the oysters are free swimmers — not having developed a shell or attached to any surface — and they are tiny, only a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. When the team arrived at work the following day, they were shocked.

“We came in the next day and we had lost 80 to 90 percent of our larvae,” Tom Bliss, director of the shellfish lab, said. “The day before, they were perfectly healthy, then overnight they went.”

They quickly concluded the mortality must have been connected to the water change, but they had no idea what substance or organism in the water was responsible. To find some answers, they approached UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Elizabeth Harvey. Harvey’s research focuses on one likely culprit — microscopic marine algae known as phytoplankton. She and her students regularly and frequently sample and test water from the river.

“We thought this was interesting, because we like algae in general,” Harvey said. “But we also thought we could help the shellfish lab answer some of their questions.”

Sean Anderson, a UGA graduate student and a member of Harvey’s team, was in the middle of a lengthy project to collect and study phytoplankton samples from the Skidaway River on a weekly basis. Coincidentally, Anderson had collected samples the same day as the water change. He observed a large concentration of a particular phytoplankton species, akashiwo sanguinea, which is considered a harmful algal species. Some algae species produce toxins that are harmful to other marine life, and some can produce large blooms, like the red tide phenomena that has closed beaches and caused other problems in Florida.

Armed with that information, Harvey obtained additional data from the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, a group of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant volunteers who collect and monitor water samples from the Skidaway River for phytoplankton and harmful algal blooms on a weekly basis.

“We were able to match other times when the hatchery has seen similar events with times when the phytoplankton volunteers observed high concentrations of that particular algae,” Harvey said.

Harvey and Bliss are fairly certain they have found the source of the problem, but they are still unclear how the algae are harming the oyster larvae, and, more importantly, how to prevent it in the future. This particular species of algae does produce a toxin. It also produces a sticky substance that has killed birds during blooms on the west coast by damaging the water proofing on their feathers.

“We don’t know if the oysters are ingesting the algae and the toxin along with it, or if the algae is getting broken apart in the filtration process,” Harvey said. “Or if this sticky substance is the problem.”

Identifying the phytoplankton that is the source of the problem is just the beginning. There are many unanswered questions. Does this algae species also affect oysters in the wild? What prompts an algae bloom? What is the actual killing agent affecting the oyster larvae? Is there a pattern to the blooms?

If a bloom can be predicted, the hatchery team can take preventative steps to protect their oyster crop. “If we know there is going to be a bloom, we can avoid bringing in water,” Bliss said. “We need to know if the toxin breaks down after 24 or 48 hours, or if there is a way to filter it out.”

Luckily, oyster consumers are safe. Harvey notes that the algae is not harmful to people who eat oysters that have been exposed to the algae.

Harvey and Bliss plan to continue to research the issue. A graduate student from the UGA Department of Marine Sciences has been added to the research team to work on the project. She is supported by the Friends of the UGA Aquarium. Harvey believes it is important to follow up with additional work, because there is no data about algal blooms in Georgia. “It would be nice to have some baseline knowledge of things that are happening here before it gets to be a serious problem,” she said. “That is the ultimate goal of scientists, to understand a system before we need to understand it, and it’s rare that we get a chance to do that.”

UGA helps sustain the coastal economy

Diversifying and adapting to change with UGA experts to help is key for coastal businesses

Orders come in overnight by emails and through messages left on Charlie Phillips’ phone.

By 7:30 a.m., he’s behind the desk in his cramped office-its walls papered with maps of Georgia barrier islands and marshes-entering orders by hand on a paper spread sheet.

A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, wants about 1,600 clams, while a regular customer on Long Island orders 3,000 to 5,000. By midday Phillips has taken orders for tens of thousands of clams, all farm-raised in the mud flats adjacent to Sapelo Island.

While he logs in the orders, employees on the dock wash the small clams that have just been pulled from the marsh in their mesh grow-out bags. Other employees gently empty baskets of harvested clams into a machine that will sort and route them by size into color-coded bags that will be packaged in boxes lined with bubble wrap. Then the clams will be shipped to businesses from south Florida to Canada.

Pivoting with the market

A second-generation Georgia fisherman, Phillips began shrimping as a teenager alongside his father, and later captained the boat when he took over the business. When the shrimp industry began to take a hit in the 1980s, he explored other opportunities. He replaced Blackbeard, his shrimp boat that caught fire and sank, with snapper boats.

But then a study showed overfishing had severely diminished the red snapper population in the Atlantic Ocean, and government regulations effectively closed red snapper fishing.

Phillips already had been exploring aquaculture, and had taken UGA Marine Extension up on its offer of grow-out clam seed for fishers looking to diversify their investments.

By 2009, he was in full production, harvesting 500,000 clams annually. Last year, his harvest was 2 million.

Julius Brennon boxes vermillion snapper or beeliners at the Spell Sea Farm dock.

A long history of struggle

Spend time with the boat captains who have worked the waters off the coast of Georgia for decades, and they’ll regale you with stories about the good old days, back in the 1960s and ’70s, when fuel was cheap and shrimp were plentiful. Back then, shrimp sold for up to $7 a pound.

In those days, there were more than 60 shrimp boats working the Georgia coast, bringing in upwards of 6 million pounds of shrimp a year, said Marty Higgins, a marine resource specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and first mate on the R/V (Research/Vessel) Georgia Bulldog.

The industry struggled in the 1980s, as fuel prices increased and foreign countries began exporting farm raised shrimp that sold for much less than the fresh shrimp from the Atlantic. Boats went out of business, commercial docks closed. Businesses supported by the fishing industry left town.

Captain Charlie Phillips, owner of Sapelo Sea Farms, explains clam farming at one of his clam beds.

From boat repairs to financial planning

Marine Extension became the go-to stop for a variety of needs. Higgins, marine resources specialist Herbert “Truck” McIver and Lindsey Parker, captain of the R/V Georgia Bulldog, sewed holes in fishing nets, welded parts back onto boats, and fixed mechanical issues when they could, so that the shrimpers could get back on the water as quickly as possible.

Marine resources specialists in Brunswick held a net-mending class for shrimpers during the winter.

Consultants from the UGA Small Business Development Center offered workshops to help fishers make financial projections and plan for the future.

Looking toward the future, Bryan Fluech, associate director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and McIver are working with McIntosh County Academy and Coastal Pines Technical College to develop a career academy program for high school students who want to pursue a career in commercial fishing. The program will address essential subjects that will better prepare participants to serve as crew members aboard commercial fishing boats in the region or possibly work in other maritime-related industries.

New to the menu: Jelly balls

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant also helps fishers expand into other areas.

For example, Georgia shrimpers, who have boats with sturdy reinforced hulls, can make money by catching and selling cannonball jellyfish, a seafood delicacy in some Asian countries.

In 2002, entrepreneur Terry Chuang decided to take advantage of the abundant cannonball jellies in the south Atlantic, and he opened a jelly ball processing plant in Darien, about 40 miles north of Brunswick.

At 6 cents a pound, the shrimpers have to catch a lot of jellyfish to make money. But it’s fairly easy work. They scoop the jellies up in their nets and drop them off at the dock. An ambitious boat captain can catch 110,000 pounds, earning $6,600, every other day, said April Harper, who manages the plant where they dry and salt the jellies before exporting them to Japan and China.

“A boat that normally would be sitting at the dock for six months is now active 12 months out of the year,” Harper said.

The UGA Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center (Food PIC) also bought some for product development on a project proposal using jelly balls, said Kirk Kealey, FoodPIC director.

Another option: Oysters

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant offered another opportunity to diversify in 2015 with the launch of an oyster hatchery on Skidaway Island. About 10 people working in the fishing industry were given oyster seed, or spat, created at the hatchery, to grow out to maturity as single shell oysters.

The 5 to 6 million spat, produced as of this year, are expected to have a harvest value of $1 million to $1.2 million.

At Sapelo Sea Farms, Charlie Phillips also is growing oysters. They take more time and effort than clams and so far he doesn’t make much money off it, but he’s open to learning more about.

After all, he found his niche in growing clams when UGA began introducing that option to Georgia fishers in the late 1990s. There was a learning curve then, too. Today, he can buy 1.3 million clam seeds from South Carolina for $15,000. With a 40-50 percent yield, the harvest value is roughly $100,000.

“I diversified, which most people did not,” Phillips said. “If you don’t, you’re toast. I would not be in the clam business if it weren’t for Marine Extension.”

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