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Atlantic Estuarine Research Society Holds Meeting in Kitty Hawk Program Features Oil Spill Studies, Research by ECU Professors

Seventy-five scientists from private industry, universities and government laboratories came together at the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society (AERS) meeting last week to discuss the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, estuaries and coastal processes along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The meeting, held Nov. 4-6, was co-sponsored by East Carolina University’s Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, the ECU Department of Biology, the ECU Institute for Coastal Science and Policy, The ECU Division of Research and Graduate Studies and the ECU Chapter of The Coastal Society.

AERS president Peter Straub, from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, convened the meeting. ECU associate professor of biology Joseph Luczkovich was the local host and welcomed the group, along with Andrew Keeler, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute.

Presentations on the impact of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill began the program. An expert panel spoke to the AERS group, with research presentations by chemist Jan Kurtz, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lab at Gulf Breeze, Florida; physical oceanographer William Boicourt, University of Maryland, Horn Point Lab; ecologist David Kimmel, ECU assistant professor of biology and Institute for Coastal Science and Policy; geochemist Siddhartha Mitra, ECU assistant professor of geological sciences; and biologist Robert Diaz, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Each scientist talked about their sampling efforts, examining impacts of the spill on the Gulf of Mexico. Results suggest that there were detectable changes in the oxygen concentrations in deep water – 1,500 feet – and a dead zone that developed off Mississippi, but there was only limited impact on the surface zooplankton abundance. Some data has yet to be analyzed.

“The oil had a characteristic chemical profile, which will allow its presence to be tracked in the environment and the food web over the next few years,” said Luczkovich. “Oyster reefs, marshes and seagrasses in Louisiana remain covered in oil, and the long-term impacts on these species are unknown. Many larger species, such as bluefin tuna, may have been affected, but the full impacts will not be known until the larval stages grow into adults and long-term population changes are assessed.”

Of greater concern to the scientists, was the unaccounted and missing 25 percent of the oil estimated to be released by the spill; 75 percent was contained, evaporated, burned off or skimmed by BP and its contractors.

“The whereabouts of this unaccounted oil is something that has resulted in wild speculation by scientists and inaccurate news reports,” said Luczkovich.

Is the oil in a subsurface plume that has not been detected? Is it buried in the sediments, in marshes and in seagrass beds in the Gulf? Could it show up later in samples elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico or off the east coast and NC?

The ensuing panel discussion with the audience focused on these questions and the role that scientists play in communicating with news reporters. Future work and presentations at upcoming meetings will focus on answering these questions, along with examining the social and economic impacts.

Additional ECU research was featured in later sessions. Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Bob Christian, professor of biology, discussed the construction of network models for a tidal marsh ecosystem in South Carolina. Luczkovich, associate professor of biology, reported on the use of passive acoustics to measure the spawning success of red drum in the Pamlico Sound. Associate professor of geography Yong Wang discussed a satellite remote-sensing model useful for prediction of effects of sea level rise on marsh erosion and changes, and associate professor of geological sciences Terry Woods reported on the discharge from a reverse-osmosis water treatment facility on the estuarine life and chemistry of Albemarle Sound.

Two doctoral students in the ECU Coastal Resources Management Program and one graduate student in ECU’s Department of Geography also gave presentations at the meeting. Doctoral student Rebecca Deehr reported on the use of an ecological network model to examine the effects of the shrimp fishery on the ecosystem and management options for Core Sound, NC, and doctoral student Sarah Young reviewed what is known about the social and economic impacts of coastal erosion. Graduate student Richard Curran discussed a combination of acoustic and satellite remote sensing techniques to develop a GIS map of seagrasses in Jarrett Bay, NC.

Also during the meeting, two ECU students were honored for their research presentations. Cecilia Krahforst, Coastal Resources Management doctoral student, won the Best Paper Award for Graduate Students, with her presentation “Can Single-Beam Sonar be Used to Accurately Survey the Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Beds in North Carolina’s Estuaries?” Allison Ballance, undergraduate senior pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, was awarded Best Paper among the undergraduates, for her poster “Environmental Stressors on SAV Species Composition.”

Both students received a one-year memberships in the parent society of AERS, the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, and were invited to attend the national meeting of the CERF in Daytona, Fla., scheduled for next fall.

The final presentation of the AERS conference featured Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Stanley Riggs, professor of geological sciences, who led the AERS group on a field trip to examine sea level rise impacts and beach erosion problems of the Outer Banks communities.

The field trip included a visit to a location where a new inlet to Pamlico Sound is likely to form at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Activities of the North Carolina Department of Transportation to repair and keep open NC Highway 12 after storm overwash was discussed, as well as the dynamics of the Oregon Inlet, the Bonner Bridge and its imminent need for replacement and the future of the Outer Banks islands as sea level rises.

For additional information about the AERS meeting, contact Luczkovich at 252-328-9402, 252-328-9405 (lab), or luczkovichj@ecu.edu.