Written by Lauren Colonair.

Dr. Jim Morley, one of the newest researchers at CSI, is working on many interesting projects through Morley Marine Fisheries Ecology Lab. Morley’s research is a mix of ecological modeling and fieldwork, with a focus on providing information to aid in future sustainable coastal resource management efforts. Unsurprisingly, this focus has resulted in projects centered around oyster leases –  areas within a sound that are used to raise and harvest oysters for consumption – in North Carolina. 

“Oyster farming is really on the rise, across the country, and it has been for fifteen or twenty years,” Morley said. 

These oyster leases have proven to be a valuable, and potentially sustainable, way to produce seafood on the coast. In fact, oyster farms provide many of the same beneficial functions that a natural oyster reef would. This includes filtering water and, the focus of Morley’s current project, providing fish habitat. 

Many of the sounds in North Carolina do not have an abundance of structure within their waters,  instead consisting of muddy bottoms and seagrass beds. Morley hypothesized that the addition of an oyster lease to an otherwise structureless sound would provide habitat for certain fish species and thus attract them to the area. 

Morley and his Ph.D. student Andrew McMains found a site near Cedar Island and designed an experiment to test this hypothesis. Recently, fellow CSI intern Heidi Hannoush and I were lucky enough to spend a day at the field site with McMains.

The day we joined him was a beautiful day to do fieldwork. The sun was shining brightly in the sky and the wind was calm and mild. Beautiful beds of seagrass greeted our boat as we made our way to the lease. Once we had anchored, Andrew began to set up his equipment. 

Right now, McMains’ main job is to tag a species of fish known as Sheepshead with acoustic trackers. These trackers, along with an array of underwater receivers, will provide data on the movement of each fish for approximately two months. This method of tracking is highly accurate and has the potential to provide a lot of useful data. However, tagging each fish is a fairly intensive process that required McMains and Morley to become versed in the art of fish surgery. 

We spent the first part of our day observing Andrew perform surgery on three fish. There was a rhythm to the way each surgery proceeded.

The fish was sedated and secured on a makeshift operating table. Next, a  tag was inserted into its belly with great care to keep the space sanitary and safe. Then the fish was stitched up, and placed in a recovery bucket.

Once each fish recovered, it had to be released into the oyster lease. Unaware of how cold the sound water was, I promptly volunteered to get in the water and take the newly tagged Sheepshead to the nearest oyster basket. Although we were under gorgeous blue skies and the air felt warm, a storm had recently passed through creating quite a frigid water experience, but watching each little fish swim off onto the lease brought a smile to my face. 

After the surgeries had been completed we ate lunch on the boat as Andrew explained more details of the project. Getting these explanations while at the field site surrounded by all the equipment provided us an in-depth insight into this project that would never have been found through an interview alone. Often, those who are interested in the findings of the scientific community do not get to see all the work that happens behind the statistics, graphs, and papers. We may forget that hours upon hours 

of hard work happen in real places to provide us with knowledge and understanding of our world and environment. Spending the day at the field site reminded me of this aspect of science and how truly important the people and places behind data are.

Throughout the rest of the day, we explored the lease in search of more fish to tag. Unfortunately, our search was in vain, however, we did find a very cute, yet very angry Oyster ToadFish and a friendly blue crab. Before we left, we even came upon a group of wild horses grazing near one of the banks of the sound. 

Heidi and I felt extremely lucky and thankful for the experience Dr. Morley and Andrew provided for us. Their project is truly fascinating and important for the future of sustainable coastal management in North Carolina. Within the next few weeks, we will be releasing an article that will dig deeper into this project, explaining what is being done and what they hope to find. Be sure to be on the lookout, you won’t want to miss it! 

Led by East Carolina University (ECU), The Coastal Studies Institute is a multi-institutional research and educational partnership of the UNC System including North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, and Elizabeth City State University.



Based at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), the North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program (NCROEP) advances inter-disciplinary marine energy solutions across UNC System partner colleges of engineering at NC State University, UNC Charlotte, and NC A&T University.  Click on the links below for more information.




ECU's Integrated Coastal Programs (ECU ICP) is a leader in coastal and marine research, education, and engagement.   ECU ICP includes the Coastal Studies Institute, ECU's Department of Coastal Studies, and ECU Diving and Water Safety.


The faculty and staff at the Coastal Studies Institute come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, as well as departments and organizations including ECU Department of Biology, ECU Department of Coastal Studies, NC Sea Grant, the North Carolina Renewable Energy Program, and the UNC Institute for the Environment.


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The ECU Outer Banks campus is home to the Coastal Studies Institute.
Located on Roanoke Island along the banks of the second largest estuary
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