Research Projects 2008-2010

For the fiscal years 2008–2010, Rhode Island Sea Grant–funded research projects are:

Mark Bertness
Professor, Brown University Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
"Is crab herbivory driving New England salt marsh die offs?"
New England salt marshes, which are important nurseries for marine species and which act as buffers against coastal storms, are exhibiting bare patches of mud where saltmarsh cordgrass used to thrive. According to Mark Bertness, Brown University biology professor, researchers have traditionally considered "bottom-up" physical forces, such as soil salinity, oxygen content, and nutrients, to be the keys to healthy salt marshes, and so salt marsh management has focused on maintaining natural hydrological conditions. In 2006, a plant ecologist at the Cape Cod National Sea Shore sent Bertness photographs of extensive salt marsh die-offs on the Cape. During a subsequent visit, Bertness discovered tens to hundreds of square meters of dead cordgrass in an area that was riddled with crab burrows. This prompted Bertness to bring a team of students to the area for an impromptu experiment that suggested that a little-studied nocturnal crab, Sesarma reticulate, that feeds on young cordgrass is ravaging salt marshes on Cape Cod. But what has prompted this crab, long known as a marsh inhabitant, to suddenly have such an impact on the salt marshes? Bertness hypothesizes that human impacts may be to blame: increased nitrogen from fertilizers may have made the cordgrass more nutrient-rich, and more appealing to the crabs, and overfishing of predators may be leaving the crab population unchecked. In this research project, Bertness will be examining whether these human impacts are indeed driving crab consumption of cordgrass, and whether the salt marshes of Narragansett Bay are poised to suffer in the same way as salt marshes on Cape Cod.

Terence Bradley
Professor, University of Rhode Island Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science
"A collaborative study for the development of a behavioral assay to estimate discard mortality in summer flounder"
Summer flounder, a highly valuable and very important commercial species in Rhode Island, is managed by quotas, or catch limits, based on estimates of how many fish exist in the population. When fishermen catch flounder outside of their quota, they must discard the fish. Knowing what percentage of the discarded fish will live is very important in determining population size and would assist in defining more sustainable summer flounder quota levels. Researchers Terence Bradley, URI fisheries professor, and Kathleen Castro and Laura Skrobe, Rhode Island Sea Grant fisheries extension co-leaders, propose to study how known reflex behaviors of flounder after capture can be used to predict how well they will survive after being returned to the water. A Reflex Action Mortality Predictor (RAMP) assay will be developed for on-deck use by observers and fishermen to estimate the survival rate of discarded fish. This research will shed light on a critical problem facing the commercial fishing industry, and will provide fisheries managers with information essential for more effective regulation of the summer flounder resource.

Bethany Jenkins
ADVANCE Assistant Research Professor, University of Rhode Island Department of Cell and Molecular Biology
"Climate change and nitrogen cycling in Narragansett Bay: a coupled biogeochemical and molecular approach"
Estuaries have long been considered nitrogen "sinks," whereby bacteria in the sediments remove substantial quantities of the nutrient through a process called denitrification. However, recent research has shown that a decrease in the amount of organic matter deposited on the bottom of Narragansett Bay has switched the sediments from being a major nitrogen sink to a significant nitrogen source (nitrogen fixation). These changes have been linked to warming surface waters over the last three decades. In order to properly manage nitrogen inputs to Narragansett Bay, it is important to understand the mechanisms controlling denitrification and nitrogen fixation. This project, led by Bethany Jenkins, URI assistant professor of cell and molecular biology, and Robinson Fulweiler, a GSO graduate now at Louisiana State University, seeks to link, for the first time, nitrogen flux measurements with microbial communities in Bay sediments with the idea that organic matter controls sediment nitrogen fluxes. By knowing which organisms are responsible for the measured fluxes, the researchers hope to predict how fast the sediment microbial community responds to changing environmental conditions, and to determine whether the reversal in the nitrogen cycle is part of a stable long-term trend or whether nitrogen fluxes show different patterns seasonally and annually, and whether the process observed in the mid-bay is similar elsewhere in the bay and in the Providence River estuary. This work will inform management of nitrogen inputs to Narragansett Bay by improving understanding of the fundamental controlling mechanisms behind denitrification and nitrogen fixation. The proposed research links advanced biogeochemical and molecular techniques to determine how fast these processes are happening and what microbial communities are responsible. This research is being conducted in conjunction with work being undertaken by oceanography professor Scott Nixon's lab.

John King
Professor, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography
"BayMap: A proposal to image the seafloor, map and ground truth the habitats, and document the cultural landscape of Narragansett Bay, and Rhode Island and Connecticut coastal environments"
Effective integrated management of marine resources, infrastructure development, and environmental protection require a scientific understanding of seabed bathymetry, sediments, and habitat types, biological communities, and underwater archaeological resources. This project, led by John King, professor of marine geology and archaeology at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, is a continuation of previously funded work, and will produce a comprehensive series of high-resolution seafloor maps and images of Narragansett Bay and adjacent Rhode Island and Connecticut coastal environments to create a complete picture of their geology, habitats, biological communities and archaeology. The BayMap initiative is providing valuable information that can be used for habitat and cultural resource management in reviewing environmental assessments dealing with major projects such as coastal construction, dredging, location of aquaculture sites, habitat restoration and preservation, and dredge disposal. It can also be used to develop mitigative measures and a better quantitative understanding of the productive capacity of benthic ecosystems. Already the map products from previous efforts are being used to site restoration efforts, to track species distributions, and to assess proposals for aquaculture ventures. These map products will continue to play an increasingly important role in coastal management efforts into the future.

Chong Lee
Professor, University of Rhode Island Nutrition and Food Sciences
"Solving a squid processing waste disposal problem through bioconversion into organic fertilizer"
Historically, Rhode Island seafood processors have faced processing waste disposal problems, primarily with squid processing byproduct, since squid is harvested at one of the highest landing rates. This trend is likely to continue in the future. It is estimated that squid processing plants in the region generate in excess of 10 million pounds of processing waste annually, and squid processors must currently pay to dispose of this waste. Squid processing byproduct is high in protein, nitrogen and phosphorus, making it viable for consideration for bioconversion into squid hydrolysate, which can be used as an aquaculture nutrient additive and organic fertilizer. Chong Lee, URI professor of nutrition and food sciences, will develop a streamlined, low-cost, bioconversion process and will test methods for producing squid hydrolysate in large quantities at a commercial facility. This work will provide the industry, and potential investors, with first-hand technical information on product performance and the feasibility of commercial development. Ultimately, it opens the door to not only reduce the waste-stream of one sector of the commercial fishing industry, but to turn that waste from an expense to a possible source of income.

Bradley Moran  
Professor, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography
"An integrative study of changes in physical circulation, groundwater nutrient supply and plankton community structure in Rhode Island coastal waters"
Microbial contamination of Rhode Island's coastal waters, in particular its coastal salt ponds, poses a major human health risk through consumption of shellfish from the ponds as well as through recreational exposure. This growing problem of bacterial contamination, as well as eutrophication, of the salt ponds is related to complex issues of water supply and usage and wastewater treatment and disposal. A key challenge is tracking the source of microbial contamination and differentiating between human and non-human sources of contamination. Therefore, there is a critical need for the application of a method that allows reliable discrimination of human and non-human microbial contamination when evaluating surface and groundwater quality. This is especially true for southern Rhode Island, where houses not connected to sewers are the norm, and many have failing cesspools and/or aging septic systems. Brad Moran, Professor of Oceanography at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography is undertaking a project that will use an innovative method of microbial source tracking to identify human and non-human microbial sources entering Rhode Island salt ponds. The project will also characterize circulation, flushing rates, and groundwater quality in the ponds, and relate these ecosystem functions to changes in microbial contaminant sources over the course of an annual cycle.

Scott Nixon
Professor, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography
"Experimental studies of benthic-pelagic coupling in a changing Narragansett Bay"
The timing and magnitude of the traditional winter-spring diatom bloom has changed markedly in Narragansett Bay over the past 25 years, presumably driven by changes in grazing pressure by copepods due to climate warming. This predation pressure is exerting an effect on primary production in the Bay. Additionally, shifts from winter to spring/summer blooms have resulted in less organic matter reaching the benthos and appear to have reduced growth rates of commercially and recreationally important juvenile demersal fish and shellfish. This is an important change because the plankton are an important food source for the benthic community and are essential for the denitrification process. Concurrently, a management initiative to sharply reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay from sewage treatment plants during summer may further reduce the summer blooms in the mid- and lower Bay, and may have a negative impact on secondary production, especially in the benthos. Scott Nixon, Professor of Oceanography at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, will measure the impact of changes in the timing and magnitude of phytoplankton blooms to the bottom community in Narragansett Bay. His research will assess the potential impact of nitrogen reduction in sewage effluent during summer on the growth rates and condition of important benthic animals and on benthic-pelagic coupling. The results of this research will help to document some of the impacts of climate change on benthic ecology and productivity in the Bay, tell us if these changes are contributing to the decline of some important Bay fishery resources, and predict the impact of changes in nitrogen discharges to the Bay. This research is being conducted in conjunction with work being undertaken by Bethany Jenkins' lab.

Hirotsugu Uchida
Research Assistant Professor, University of Rhode Island Environmental and Natural Resource Economics
"Developing community-based fishery management in New England—studies of traditional fishing communities and laboratory experiments"
Decentralized fishery management, such as community-based management (CBM), that uses the knowledge and involvement of local resource users, is garnering the interest of both harvesters and regulators as an alternative to conventional centralized regulations. However, this reassignment of management responsibility is only one component of success in CBM—the other is the actual system used for managing fishing effort. One such overexploited fishery in search of creative management is the Rhode Island fluke (summer flounder) fishery. Realizing the inefficiencies in current regulations, a subset of fluke fishermen, mostly the larger bottom trawlers, formed an alliance called the Rhode Island Fluke Conservation Cooperative (RIFCC) and proposed a "sector allocation. " Under this proposal, the RIFCC will have its own share of Rhode Island's federal allocation of the total allowable catch that will be managed collectively by the members of RIFCC separate from the state's possession limits—effectively managing by CBM. Despite the increasing interest in CBM, there still is a gap in the knowledge of how a CBM effort can be successful. Hirotsugu Uchida, URI professor of environmental and natural resource economics, will evaluate the incentives of existing management structures to assess their portability beyond the traditional fishing communities in which they were developed. Uchida hopes to identify CBM systems that use local knowledge while remaining effective in large-scale industrialized fisheries. Uchida will use the proposed CBM measure in the Rhode Island fluke fishery as a motivating case. Results of this research will inform stakeholders, managers, and fishery economists of the likely effectiveness of sector allocation as a fishery management measures in the fluke and groundfish fisheries.

Sustainable Fisheries Program Mini-Grant Funded Research

Caroline Karp
Senior Lecturer, Brown University Environmental Studies
"Re-visioning women in the Southern New England fishing industry"
Around the world, women are involved in fisheries and fisheries management. In the United States however, women's roles in those fields are often considered to be marginal—fisheries management councils are dominated by men who are assumed to be the key stakeholders. Researchers Caroline Karp, Brown University senior lecturer in environmental studies, Gail Cohee, director of the Brown University Sarah Doyle Women's Center, and Helen Mederer, URI sociology professor and department chairman, propose to interview women who are involved in the fishing industry in Southern New England—as owners and/or skippers of fishing vessels, holders of federal and/or state fishing licenses, crew or NOAA observers, as well as women employed in shoreside fisheries-related activities, fisheries science, management, advocacy and outreach—to see whether there are gender-based differences in conceptions of "community-based fisheries management" that would enrich and stimulate ongoing policy discussions about how to achieve sustainable fisheries in New England. The researchers propose to identify factors that encourage or limit women's participation in informal fisheries and marine resource management decision-making, and determine whether gender-based differences in occupations within the southern New England fishing communities result in different fisheries and marine resource management preferences. This knowledge can then be applied to fisheries management to better consider the role of gender in both current and future fisheries management endeavors.

Legal Program Mini-Grant Funded Research

Jay Udelhoven
Senior Policy Advisor, The Nature Conservancy Global Marine Initiative
"State and federal submerged lands law and policy assessment"
Can private organizations acquire interests in submerged lands for conservation purposes? Jay Udelhoven, senior policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy Global Marine Initiative, will answer this question by assessing laws and policies for private submerged lands within state waters of southern New England. The Nature Conservancy and its partners (URI, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Coastal States Organization, and NOAA's Coastal Services Center) have recently completed law and policy assessments regarding submerged lands conservation in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But there is still a dearth of information regarding the ability of private conservation organizations to acquire proprietary rights to submerged lands through ownership or leasing in Connecticut, through ownership in Rhode Island, and through leasing in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off the coasts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.