The ECU Integrated Coastal Sciences (ICS) Ph.D. program, formerly known as Coastal Resources Management (CRM) until 2018, brings together some of the best and brightest upcoming interdisciplinary coastal scientists. With so many varying interests, personalities, and research projects, there is something exciting always emerging. Fall 2022 proved to be a testament to that statement and was a thrilling quarter for four students in different stages of their degrees. While the academic program is based on the main campus Greenville, and sometimes the ECU Outer Banks Campus, the students’ research is not limited by the geographical boundaries of northeastern North Carolina.
Not so far away
Closest to home, second-year student Georgette Tso is working with Drs. Rachel Gittman and Sid Narayan to identify optimal constructed oyster reef configurations for wave attenuation and erosion reduction while promoting oyster recruitment and survivorship. In addition to providing better-known benefits such as habitat for fish and crustaceans and improved water quality, an oyster reef can also serve as a natural defense against erosion by attenuating wave energy as it approaches the shoreline. That said, reefs with higher elevation compared to the local average tidal range are better at breaking up waves, while reefs with lower relief are more likely to thrive over time given the longer submersion periods. Tso hopes to identify what parameters might be needed and/or used, to best configure constructed oyster reefs so that they will be successful at both attenuating waves and contributing ecologically.
So far, Tso has collected data at previously constructed OysterCatcher TM oyster reef sites in Taylor’s Creek, located in Beaufort, NC, and begun to program models which will help in her optimization assessment. Taylors Creek is an area known for heavy boat traffic, and many have raised concerns about how boat wake is affecting the shorelines of the Rachel Carson NC National Estuarine Research Reserve. At the sites, Tso gathered information about water levels and the characteristics of the reef and the surrounding areas of sandy bottom and marsh. Others from the Gittman lab took note of oyster recruitment, survivorship, density, and size. Finally, with the assistance of engineering undergraduate student Max Martinez, she constructed and deployed low-cost underwater pressure sensors to collect wave dynamics data. Through tests in CSI’s wave tank (pictured) and with the help of Dr. Teresa Ryan and Corey Adams, Tso was able to validate the low-cost sensors against standard wave gauges.
After entering all the collected information into various statistical modeling programs, Tso’s next task is to run the models with incremental changes that simulate sea level rise and reef growth. The long-term goal is to use these predictions to inform future reef installations in such a way that they can both protect the shoreline and experience ecological success.
Off the East Coast
While Tso’s research involves stationary organisms, the subjects of Ph.D. student Brian Bartlett’s work are moving targets.
Just over a year ago, Bartlett and his advisor Dr. Rebecca Asch, along with Dr. Cheryl Harrison, a colleague from Louisiana State University, applied for a grant from the NOAA Climate Program Office. This past fall, they were notified that their proposal, “Climate Change Impacts on Reef Fish Spawning Aggregations, Larval Dispersal, and Settlement in Southeastern U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries and Surrounding Areas”, had been selected and would be awarded $445,000 over the course of three years.
With the initial excitement of the news settling down, the team now seeks to better understand how climate change may influence the reproductive success- specifically spawning aggregations- of Black Grouper, Nassau Grouper (pictured), and Mutton Snapper, in three National Marine Sanctuaries: Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys, and Flower Garden Banks. Bartlett and his colleagues will utilize climate models and identify spawning habitat to provide insight as to how effective these marine protected areas will be for the three species as the climate shifts.
While each fish species tends to prefer certain types of habitat characteristics, the research team believes their methods will be applicable to similar studies in the future all over the world, including off the coast of North Carolina. This specific project is broad enough that it will have implications across the fields of biology, oceanography, ecosystem-based management, economics, and more- something that Bartlett sees as a strength of the project.
“This isn’t a study just for the sake of science. It will be applicable,” he states. “This work will support management in these National Marine Sanctuaries by providing better insight into metapopulation structure and distribution of reef fish species under changing climatic conditions.”
In layman’s terms, when complete, the study will be able to inform sanctuary managers of what may lie ahead in the wake of climate change, and how the managers might best respond to best protect these key reef species.
To the Western Most Points of the US
Dominic Bush. Photo courtesy of Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News.
As Bartlett conducts research that might better sustain fish species, fellow Ph.D. student Dominic Bush works to preserve cultural history. In the summer and fall of 2022, Bush, a Hawaiian native with Alaskan heritage, stayed busy, traveling to both states outside of the continental US for fieldwork and research. He is interested in maritime archeology and both of his recent projects have focused on key battle sites, from WWII.
Over the summer, Bush spent time in Anchorage, Alaska, conducting initial research and combing through historical archives (pictured) to learn more about a series of battles against the Japanese in 1943 off the Aleutian Island of Attu. In addition to the thousands of casualties resulting from the battles, a myriad of military craft was also sunk including American and Japanese aircraft, ships, one submarine, and other vessels. Despite having a written record of these losses, no one has ever documented the underwater sites where these wrecks now lie.
Fortunately, though, thanks to a NOAA grant that Bush and his advisor Dr. Jason Raupp received, such work can begin, and Bush’s trip to Anchorage was just the first step. Next summer, in July 2024, they and other colleagues will visit Attu and use sonar and autonomous vehicles to investigate and begin documentation of the wreck sites. Their measures will help preserve Attu’s cultural heritage, as well as shine additional light on the battles that took place in the Aleutian Islands. They hope to share their findings with the surrounding communities, as well as government and academic entities.
While Bush’s work in Alaska will help document sites there for the first time, the work he conducted in Hawaii this fall, also with Raupp, was part of a larger project, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, to resurvey WWII-era wrecks. The coast of Maui and Lanai is littered with archeological sites, but the last time anything was documented, if ever, was over a decade ago. Between storms and anthropogenic, or human-caused, disturbances, many of the sites are not as they once were.
Bush dives on a wreck site with a camera in hand to document the site as it existed in the fall. (Photo: Dr. Jenny Adler.)
In order to best preserve the history and cultural heritage associated with these sites, Bush and his colleagues lived aboard the Ocean Exploration Trust’s EV Nautilus for a few weeks in October. Each day they would dive on various sites, documenting each wreck through surveys, photography, and videography.
Since processing the data they collected, Bush has used the thousands of videos and photos to create photogrammetric models of each site. The models, once complete, will be uploaded to the Ocean Exploration Trust’s website and sketchfab, thus granting global access to these important historical and cultural areas. They will give viewers a chance to learn about the sites and see them in 3D without having to leave their homes or classrooms.
Approaching the Northern Limits
Third-year student Samantha Farquhar is no stranger to international work. Her research throughout her academic and professional career has often focused on projects based in places like Madagascar. While her latest endeavors won’t be taking her overseas, Farquhar is scheduled to begin other international work later this year in Canada.
This past fall, Farquhar, who is mentored by Dr. Nadine Heck, received an award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) program which offers grants to doctoral students conducting research in other countries for a 6–12-month period. She is the first ECU student to receive this prestigious funding opportunity.
Much of Farquhar’s research examines the intersections between fisheries operations and management and human behaviors, and her work in Canada will also have a similar focus. Specifically, she hopes to create a series of models which will provide insight as to how commercial fisheries in Nunavik might operate sustainably based on community subsistence fishing behaviors in the area. Her research will consider the connection between fisheries and food consumption in the surrounding geographic areas, and she will collaborate with University of Laval and the Makivik Corporation.
Photo: Samantha Farquhar will begin additional international work later this year in Canada.
While Farquhar has relatively easy access to environmental and fisheries data, she will have to collect information needed to assess human behaviors. To do so, she will host workshops and conduct exercises with the residents of the Inuit communities to get a better understanding of how their consumption behaviors might shift in response to environmental changes driven by various scenarios of industrial fishing.
The communities Farquhar is working with are hoping to develop their own commercial fisheries, but they want to have all the information that is needed to make an appropriate decision. What they don’t want is for a commercial fishery to end up negatively impacting their already established subsistence way of life. With the models that Farquhar hopes to develop and share, the communities will be able to make the decisions that make the most sense for them and their desired goals.
Working Together To Make a Positive Impact on the World
“Our Ph.D. program is different from many other doctoral programs because of its integration of natural and social sciences. This type of interdisciplinary approach has resulted in all these dissertation projects being so beneficial to humans and the environment,” says the program’s director Dr. Sid Mitra.
Though Tso’s, Bartlett’s, Bush’s, and Farquhar’s research endeavors are all different, there is one common theme among them. A long-term goal for each is to share their knowledge and findings with others so that the communities and regions in which they work can become more sustainable, last long into the future, and serve as examples of preservation and innovation to others around the world. The ICS program is home to many shining stars, and there is no doubt it will continue to produce more in the years to come.