NC scientists find oyster reefs may out pace sea-level rise

Originally published in the News & Observer

— Climate scientists predict that by 2100 sea level will be 2 to 3 feet higher than it is today, but it appears oyster reefs may adapt to the change.

New research at the UNC Marine Science Institute finds oyster reefs grow fast enough to keep pace with rising seas. Unprecedented climate warming and sea-ice loss is causing sea levels to rise, threatening to bury coastal ecosystems in the process.

A long history of overfishing and habitat degradation has led to the loss of approximately 95 percent of oyster reefs on the East Coast, making them particularly sensitive to any additional habitat loss from rising seas. Biologists Tony Rodriguez and Joel Fodrie at the UNC Marine Science Institute are studying how oyster reefs respond to sea-level rise and how shoreline restoration improves their chance of survival.

A half-million oyster shells line the shore in front of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. Hard substrate like shells and rock attract new oysters to settle, grow and build a reef ecosystem. Oyster reefs improve shoreline protection and water quality and increase biodiversity. E. WOODWARD — UNC MARINE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

A half-million oyster shells line the shore in front of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. Hard substrate like shells and rock attract new oysters to settle, grow and build a reef ecosystem. E. WOODWARD — UNC MARINE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

The project began in 1997 when a graduate student planted artificial oyster reefs in the sand flats near Morehead City. With time, planted reefs transform into large dense structures of oysters, shell and sand. More than 10 years passed before UNC biologists at the institute surveyed the reefs again.

“They had grown really high,” Rodriguez said. “We thought that just can’t be right… So, we decided to try and measure their growth, and that is how it all started.”

Rodriguez and Fodrie set out to take the first direct measurements of oyster reef expansion. They created 11 additional artificial reefs and measured their growth over the following two years.

Using laser scanning technology, Rodriguez and Fodrie generated topographic maps of the oyster reefs. The laser works by shooting at a rotating mirror, which scatters light onto the reef and measures the return. These maps allow scientists to calculate precise rates of reef accumulation by comparing depths to original GPS coordinates.

They discovered oyster reefs can grow up to 10 times faster than previous estimates and fast enough to outpace even the most extreme predictions of sea-level rise.

Future oyster restoration projects will benefit from their findings, which were published in the April issue of Nature Climate Change. Their work gives guidelines on where to construct new reefs and how much material to put out to get the biggest and healthiest reef.

Rodriguez purchased oyster shells from a cannery for $128, which he used to create an oyster bed the size of four queen-size mattresses. Over time, his reefs accumulated sediment, organic material and juvenile oysters. Now, more than 10 years later, the oyster beds are teeming with life and have more than doubled in size.

Rodriguez hopes coastal residents will consider protecting their homes by building oyster reefs instead of bulkheads.

“That oyster reef will grow up and give them some protection from erosion,” he said.

Annamarija Frankic, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the Green Harbor Project, agrees. A living shoreline with protected oyster reefs offers several benefits, including storm protection, improved water quality, increased biodiversity and carbon storage. Oyster reefs do not need maintenance like bulkheads because they are resilient and expand with rising seas. Bulkheads have a maximum lifespan of 50 years while oyster reefs are self-sustaining.

UNC Chapel Hill recognizes these benefits and has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by cutting net carbon emissions to zero by mid century. Earlier this month, students and faculty at the Marine Science Institute added about a half a million oyster shells to the sand flats bordering their lab, in a project that could store up to a ton of carbon dioxide per year and accrue $3,190 per year in benefits to water quality, shoreline protection and fisheries, according to Rodriguez.

Frankic makes another case for oyster reef restoration: the survival of oysters themselves. Restoration and protection will give oysters a chance to establish large, genetically diverse reefs, qualities that reduce sensitivity to disease and climate warming, she said.

“If we don’t restore oysters, I don’t think they will be able to sustain more stress exacerbated with climate change,” she said.


Sarah Wheeler, an Ecology PhD Candidate at San Diego State University, shares her dissertation research to an all ages audience at the Coastal & Marine Institute Laboratory Open House in March 2014. Sarah studies the larval ecology of rockfishes (Sebastes spp.), with particular emphasis on the copper rockfish (S. caurinus) and the gopher rockfish (S. carnatus) (end of Q&A got cut off).

At the CMIL Open House, SDSU scientists  showcased current research at SDSU, the facilities at CMIL, and many educational activities related to marine ecology and conservation. This fun family event engaged visitors in educational activities to demonstrate what goes on at a working marine research laboratory.

Apologies for the video quality! This presentation was recorded using an iPhone. Thanks Carol!

What do lasers, satellites and ear bones tell us about fish populations?

A call for community and a new framework for science outreach

Marine Biologists at CMIL pose for a group photo following their Open House event in March 2013

Marine Biologists at CMIL pose for a group photo following their Open House event in March 2013

Einstein understood that experience is the source of knowledge. Knowledge grows from relationships and through community engagement.* Too often we underestimate the benefits of relationships outside of our immediate network. A surprising and seemingly mundane interaction I had with Jordan, a fourth grade girl at a science fair, has blossomed into a shared mentoring relationship. Jordan’s awe and enthusiasm are evidence that my research matters to people of many ages and backgrounds. We write each other about our challenges in school and personal goals. She motivated me to organize a public tidepooling event, through which I was reminded how science outreach events create an environment for sharing knowledge in an impactful way. Jordan was then inspired to lead her own tidepool event to connect her peers to her new passion for the ocean. She even purchased her own plankton net online – a sign that she is already identifying as a biologist. Before we met, Jordan was committed to being an actress. Now she is an aspiring scientist, ocean enthusiast, leader and certainly a reminder that meaningful relationships matter most in the change-making process.

Science outreach is a promising and undervalued asset for the advancement of science and knowledge. Outreach comes in many forms such as public lectures, social media, and classroom visits, but the common thread is that outreach builds connections between scientists and the communities they serve.

Academic and research institutions house and employ scientists, which means they have a fundamental role in how outreach is conducted.

Unfortunately, many institutions lack organizational structures to facilitate scientists’ involvement in outreach.This raises the question, how will an investment in institutional support for outreach feedback to improve research, opportunity, and public knowledge? 

Most academic institutions reward a narrow set of accomplishments, and leave scientists a laundry list of responsibilities that generally go unrewarded. Scientists move up the career ladder by publishing novel research, but they are expected to be good teachers, acquire research funding, participate in peer review, mentor students, and contribute to professional societies. There is increasing pressure to engage in outreach, yet there is no positive effect of publicly disseminating science on advancing one’s career status.** Only 14% of junior staff participate in outreach, citing the priority of publishing research as limiting involvement.‡ A ‘scientists do it all’ framework sets them up to fail, or at least flail, in fulfilling their expected role in society. If we expect scientists to do it all with the current framework, we shouldn’t be surprised when the quality and extent of science outreach is compromised.

The Benefits of Community Networks

The benefits of scientists’ participation in outreach are often immeasurable and certainly deserve further recognition. Outreach has positive cascading effects on public education, the emerging workforce, and the success of research. When asked what led them to pursue science, most professionals will tell you a story like Jordan’s – an experience filled with curiosity, discovery, and having fun. When we interact with scientists on a personal level, it creates a relatable image in our mind of who they are and what they do. They become as real as teachers, doctors or policemen. Bringing scientists into K-12 classrooms can also benefit the quality of research. Involvement in K-12 education has been shown to improve the methodological skills of grad students, which directly benefits the quality of research.† It is safe to say that education and research thrive when we build connections outside of our immediate network.

Relationships between scientists and local businesses can also improve research and success in the private sector. For example Dr. Tessa Hill, a scientist at the University of California, Davis, is partnering with a local oyster farmer, Terry Sawyer, to address the impacts of climate change. Terry’s business is suffering, but together they are developing new industry practices to reduce oyster mortality caused by stressful ocean conditions. His oyster company now hosts Tessa’s sensors to monitor seawater quality. These sensors identify when seawater is corrosive, and also act as an important source of data for scientific inquiry and aquaculture management. This partnership opened up a line of communication and revealed shared goals and mutual benefits. By establishing this relationship, the research is accessible and valued by both partners. Oyster growers have now became leaders in the discussion connecting climate change to business success.‡

Bridging the gap between scientists and industry is a promising way to bring awareness (and perhaps funding) to issues that affect us all.


Photo Credit: David Briggs, Pt Reyes Light

So what explains why scientists choose to engage in outreach? It all comes down to attitude, perception, and experience, according to a 2008 study by Jensen and colleagues.‡ Researchers found that many scientists choose not to engage in outreach because they perceive it will have harmful consequences for their careers (no negative consequences, however, were found in this study). Another influential factor is a common belief that their colleagues are also not participating in outreach. This may signal that we can change perceptions and excite engagement through discussion and leading by example. The perception that outreach is irrelevant or discouraged by institutions is worrisome. It suggests that institutions may be underestimating their influence on the extent scientists engage with the public and their responsibility to rectify the issue.

Universities can improve science outreach by making it logistically easier to participate. This could be promoted by providing support staff, offering training and incentives, or connecting scientists to existing communication outlets. When institutions establish collaborations with community groups that specialize in outreach, there may be a greater potential for long lasting and more impactful outreach, outliving research grants or individuals. At the minimum, universities could outline expectations and codes of conduct in the hiring or review process. Suffice to say, the structural support of intuitions is integral to bridging the gap between scientists and the rest of society.

The bleak financial landscape in science makes it difficult to find time for outreach, but a plan of action is essential to stay competitive. The National Science Foundation requires an outline for disseminating research to a non-science audience and this obligation is growing. But, the responsibility to meet this demand is disproportionately put on individual scientists and less so on institutions.

Expanding existing outreach networks at institutions may stimulate expansive changes with relatively little financial cost. Most universities have devoted staff for communicating with the public sphere,  but often the communication offices and science departments are not communicating with each other. In many cases, a minimal amount of website support is difference between a few and an infinite number of people with access to information. Collaborations across departments or with existing science education organizations may result in more successful outreach. Collaborations prevent scientists from reinventing the wheel with each proposal.

Funding agencies are also putting more value on the extent research impacts society, with requirements to assess achievements and quantify demographics reached. Scientists that have limited societal connections will be at a disadvantage, and as a consequence, may require more time and energy to secure funding. These consequences feedback to negatively affect institutions, as more time writing grants leaves less time for research.

Successful Outreach and the Future

Research laboratories across the country are opening doors to the public through community outreach events and volunteer opportunities. Interconnected networks within and beyond institutions will not be the same everywhere, but an example of what success looks like is at the San Diego State University Coastal and Marine Institute Laboratory (CMIL). I have witnessed how the creation of an open house at CMIL initiated an attitude shift in scientists, while also increasing public knowledge of research. When organizing the first open house, securing faculty and lab participation was a challenge. But on the day of the event, kindergarteners and professors shared in glee by watching baby octopuses hatch. How can you measure the benefit of this experience? Well, the link is indirect, but it is telling that in the following year faculty contacted us to get involved. A single event had the power to shift attitudes about outreach. One professor even designed and constructed a giant kelp forest tunnel to immerse visitors in his research. To me, the constructed tunnel is proof that once a framework is available, scientists can and will invest a ‘forest’s worth’ in outreach. 


Octopus embryos born March 10th 2012.
Photo Credit: Kirk Sato, PhD Student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The need for change is imminent. Funding for science is on the decline and opportunities are increasingly competitive. Most of Jordan’s 4th grade friends have no idea what a ‘day in the life’ of a scientist is like. Think of all the businesses that could benefit from a relationship like Tessa’s and Terry’s. Let’s rethink the power of our academic institutions and the role they play in facilitating communication and collaboration. With adequate support, scientists may change their perspectives and appreciate the benefits of engaging in their community. These relationships initiate discussion. They inspire new behaviors. They reveal opportunities and build momentum for a broader role of scientists in the community.

Let’s recalculate the return on our investment. Let’s build a new institutional framework for outreach.


*  Wheatly, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., pg. 104.

** Jensen, P., Rouquier, J.B, Kreimer, P., & Croissant, Y. (2008) Scientists who engage in outreach perform better academically. Science and Public Policy 7:527-541.

† Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Howe, P. (2012) Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in September, 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

‡ Charles, J. “Impacts of ocean acidity feed oyster growers’ research” The Point Reyes Light 30 May 2013 Web 6 Jan. 2014

Re-thinking recycling through a pair of crusty shorts

If you found crusty shorts on the beach would you pick them up and take them home? Probably not, but why? Are they worthless? Are they fundamentally gross? Do you have a fear of catching some nasty shorts disease?

Let me tell you a story about how one “shorts-picker-upper” caused me to RETHINK recycling  and realize my power – I can either create waste or create possibilities.

When I was in middle school, my friends and I used to walk down the cliffs in La Jolla to swim in the caves and snorkel. There was one day I remember in particular. The day my sister, Jennie, found a pair of salt-crusted shorts embedded in the sandstone….and decided to pick them up. These were black, cotton drawstring shorts that looked like they had been ironed onto the cliff with a mix of rainwater, sand and salt. When she lifted them up for inspection, the shorts maintained a flattened disc shape – a clear sign that these shorts had been there for a while. “Hey check these out. Do you think these will fit me?” My friends and I just stood there looking at her, a little stunned. Stunned because she was not only able to look past the “ick factor” and pick up weird trash on the cliffs, but also because she saw potential in the shorts.

I also felt a little embarrassed, thinking Jennie would now be known as the “crusty-shorts-girl.” Remember, this was back in middle school when being different (let alone crusty) was not really something to be desired. To Jennie the only difference between these shorts and a pair at the department store was a little bit of sand, salt and sunny weather.

This may not sound like a dramatic “ah ha!” moment, but for me it was transitional. In that  moment, I realized I was guilty of disregarding the shorts. If Jennie hadn’t stopped, my internal conversation would have started and ended with this: Those are some crusty lookin’ shorts. Not a very long thought process. My brain immediately categorized the shorts as ‘crusty,’ and anything in the crusty category was deemed useless. The thought process was thereby terminated. If Jennie hadn’t stopped, I probably would have left the shorts to their salty fate. I certainly wouldn’t have thought to give the shorts a little TLC and re-purpose them into something of value. Even if I didn’t want to wear the shorts, they could have easily been washed and donated to Goodwill. At least they could be turned into a cleaning rag. I hadn’t even considered these alternative fates – or viewed the shorts as having any value. It wasn’t until I saw someone else take a moment to RETHINK the possibilities that I realized my disregard. Jennie’s simple act made me discover how narrow-minded I was about the short’s potential – and by extension the potential of all used materials.

Jennie, the "shorts-picker-upper," continues to educate others about recycling and sustainability through the Eco Reps Program at Portland State University

Jennie, the “shorts-picker-upper,” continues to educate others about recycling and sustainability through the Eco Reps Program at Portland State University

So why did Jennie see potential and I saw crusty? Well for starters, Jennie isn’t afraid of what other people think or put-off by sandy shorts. Maybe in the moment my friends and I would see her as the “crusty-shorts-girl,” but Jennie knew that after a quick wash, she would just be a normal shorts-wearing teenager. In fact, this is exactly what happened. She threw them in the wash, transforming them into perfectly wearable shorts for years to come. Her open mindedness allowed her to think beyond crusty lookin’ and to RETHINK the shorts’ potential value.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should pick up old t-shirts and trash on the beach and feel obligated to re-purpose everything. I’m telling this story to demonstrate that our fear of being labeled gross and crusty can prevent the re-use of perfectly valuable materials. In addition, if we make judgements about others who reuse trash, then are we not maintaining this cycle of limited thinking? How do we retrain our brain to continue the thought process beyond crusty?

This experience forced me to RETHINK recycling. It’s not just about separating your trash into plastic, glass, paper etc. It’s about taking a moment to consider the potential future of what we use and what we put to waste. Where will this toothbrush go after I’m done with it? Should I buy the tomatoes in the plastic holder or on the vine? Should I toss the shorts or wash the shorts? If we take a moment to RETHINK, we will realize that we have the power to either create waste or create possibilities.

Let’s add RETHINK to recycle-reduce-reuse.

Adventures of the night shift

The shift commences with a briefing from the crew boss. The first item on the agenda is to conduct a bongo tow, led by krill biologist, Brianna Michaud from UC Santa Cruz. Brianna is in the early stages of her science career and she is hitting the ground running. She is quick to laugh and full of energy, making the environment of night shift light and fun. I like to go out on deck to watch the deployment because it usually takes place right at sunset, when the waves reflect an orange glow and the albatross scan the swell.


Brianna retrieves the bongo tow

The bongo tow is followed by at CTD cast led by Lewis Barnett, an Ecology Ph.D. candidate from UC Davis. Lewis and I met a few years back through mutual friends. We have similar research questions, but are taking very different approaches in our studies. He works with complex mathematical models, and I study natural variability of populations in the field. Every six months or so will catch up in person or over the phone to chat about rockfish and the progress we are making in our research. While at sea, Lewis trains me to use the CTD and also helps write a protocol for future volunteers.


Lewis prepares the CTD for deployment

As soon as the CTD is out of the water, the crew deploys the trawl. It takes up to 20 or 30 minutes just to get enough line out to get the trawl to the desired depth. We will trawl for 5 or 15 minutes and then reel the net back in. Once on deck, the crew will consolidate the catch into the “cod end” and crane it over to the “fish box.”  The catch is assembled into large bins and the total volume is measured. This allows scientists to compare the total catch among locations and years. We remove a subset of the catch to sort. The sorting process involves identifying each species present, measuring 20-30 individuals of each species (well most species), and taking a volume of the krill. The backbone of the survey protocol has been used for decades, and as we learn more, the scientists add to the list of target species to track and measure. This protocol has allowed scientists to evaluate how species fluctuate in response to environmental conditions or the presence of other species (competitors and/or predators).

Sorting the catch is definitely my favorite part of the process. You never know what you are going to get, but you can be sure that you are going to get something freakishly cool.

Here are some of my favorite finds thus far…


Phronima, evicted from its home


Phronima, the amphipod that eats the inside of a salp and lives inside its body like an alien!


snailfish (Liparis spp.)
Snailfish have a large sucking disk on the underside of their body, which they use to attach to benthic habitat. These fish feed on crustaceans or other small organisms. Their larvae are pelagic (pictured).


barracudina (Family: Paralepididae)
Paralepididae in greek translates to parallel scale. These fish live in the open ocean from midwater depths to the suface. Barracudinas are simultaneous hermaphrodites.

In any given night, we aim to conduct 3-6 trawls, each at a designated station along a line from coast to sea. The trawl lines span the continental shelf, where many larvae migrate during their pelagic phase. The station furthest offshore is where we see the most deep dwelling fish.

We continue to trawl and conduct CTDs until we “run out of darkness.” After the last sort, I head out to the back deck and watch the sunrise. I have about 30 minutes to take it all in before breakfast is served. As I watch the light change, I am greeted by the albatross,  the fresh salty air and a sense of calm after the night’s events.

All aboard the RV Ocean Starr


View leaving SF Bay

For the next 7 days, I will be volunteering on a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) research cruise on the RV Ocean Starr. Each year, the NMFS division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducts surveys along the west coast for fishes (icthyoplankton), krill, jellyfish, squid etc. These surveys are focused on studying fish populations as well as oceanography. The findings of these surveys are used to manage our fisheries and generate stock assessments. This goal is accomplished by trawling for fish with large Modified-Cobb midwater trawl nets at different depths. Before each trawl (weather permitting), the scientists will conduct a CTD cast, which measures conductivity, temperature and depth. The CTD is also designed to take water samples at specified depths.


Modified-Cobb midwater trawl



My role as a volunteer is to help sort through the catch from each trawl. We identify, count and measure a subset of the entire catch. All the trawls are conducted at night, which means my shift is ~8pm – 6am. Last night our trawling was delayed due to sustained 40 mph winds. Looks like it is upwelling season! The winds finally subsided at approximately 3:30 am and we were able to begin sampling.

What was the highlight of the first shift? Getting to see some baby rockfish! So cute!