No, crab soup is not on the menu. In fact, our shifting climate might change what you find on your plate at a seafood restaurant in the near future.

I am a Ph. D. candidate in biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology with a research focus in marine ecology. I’m passionate about building connections between science and education, both inside and outside of the classroom. My project as part of my Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship involves examining how climate change will affect different organisms found in Georgia’s oyster reefs, like blue crabs, and possible consequences of these impacts. As a research trainee, I have the unique opportunity to address these important research questions and share what I have learned with stakeholders and the public – including you!

In Georgia, oyster reefs are important coastal ecosystems for humans and many other organisms. Some of their benefits (called ecosystem services) include water filtration, shoreline protection against waves and storms and nursery grounds for economically important fisheries. They also provide historically significant food sources such as blue crabs and oysters.

Blue crabs are important predators in oyster reefs because they have large ecological impacts. They like to eat mud crabs, who like to eat oysters. Blue crab predators can indirectly help oysters survive by not only eating mud crab prey (so reducing the number of hungry mud crabs trying to snack on oysters), but also “scaring” mud crabs to hide rather than forage for food. Thus, blue crabs are critical for oyster survival, especially as oyster reefs already are threatened by stressors such as overharvesting. But what about human impacts on a global scale?

Alex Draper holding a mud crab at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

Alex Draper holding a mud crab at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Photo by Caroline Zabinski.

Climate change today is caused by burning of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas by trapping the sun’s energy as heat within the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise – known as global warming. This excess carbon dioxide is also being directly absorbed into ocean waters, shifting seawater chemistry to make it more acidic — aptly named ocean acidification. These stressors have been shown to have broadly negative effects on life around the world. However, coastal environments may experience even more extreme conditions than the global average. So how do warming and acidification affect important coastal ecosystems such as oyster reefs and the organisms that live in them? That is where my job comes in!

My research so far has shown that blue crabs and mud crabs are being stressed out by climate change in different ways. When exposed to the warming and acidification predicted for Georgia estuaries by the end of the century, blue crabs and mud crabs will not survive as well and will have difficulty moving around to find food. This may help oysters survive from predation as they are a favorite prey of blue crabs and mud crabs, but other research shows oysters may suffer from climate change too. These results highlight the potential implications of climate change for not only coastal marine species, but the ecosystem services they provide.

The next step of my project is to incorporate my research into educational and outreach activities at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium. I am working with Bryan Fluech, Associate Marine Extension Director, and marine educator Dodie Sanders. We will provide hands-on opportunities for school groups and members of the coastal community to learn about coastal ecology in Georgia and the impacts humans are having on these ecosystems. I am so excited to build these connections between research, education and outreach to promote scientific learning. Stay tuned!