Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

Scientists track microplastic pollution on the Georgia coast

January 31, 2017

In recent years, the public has become attuned to the problem of trash in the ocean, especially plastic, as images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have spread through media and the Internet. Now, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Jay Brandes is leading a team investigating another issue closer to home on the Georgia coast: microplastics.

Jay Brandes

Jay Brandes

These are tiny pieces of plastic—smaller than  five millimeters, or about a fifth of an inch—that have either been manufactured small or have broken down from larger pieces. They can be found in our beaches, water and in the digestive systems of aquatic wildlife.

“Five millimeters is still something you can see with the naked eye, but if you are out at the beach you aren’t going to pick up on it easily,” Brandes said. “So we say anything smaller than 5 millimeters is considered a microplastic.”

A few pieces of microplastic collected from the Georgia coast.

A few pieces of microplastic collected from the Georgia coast.

 

Funded by Georgia Sea Grant, Brandes and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educator Dodie Sanders are in the first year of a two-year study to ascertain the extent of microplastic pollution in Georga’s coastal waters.

“Right now we are just trying to get an idea if there is a problem, and if there is, how prevalent it is,” Brandes said.

Microplastics come from several sources. Beginning in 1972, cosmetics manufacturers started adding plastic microbeads to exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs, which often pass freely through water treatment plants. When scientists reported finding these microbeads in rivers, lakes and oceans, it prompted a worldwide discussion on the issue. In 2015, Congress enacted legislation requiring the cosmetics industry to remove microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics by July of this year.

The sun also contributes to the production of microplastics. Plastic exposed to sunlight eventually fades, becomes brittle and breaks down into smaller pieces.

“All of us have probably seen a Styrofoam cup break down and the little beads come out,” Brandes said.  “So there is the physical breakdown of the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces as they grind against each other and sand grains.”

To assess the extent of microplastic pollution on the Georgia coast, the research team makes use of the regular trawls conducted by UGA Marine Education and Aquarium staff. They collect the fish, shrimp, squid and other animals captured in the trawl and take them back to a laboratory where they will dissect them and analyze the contents of their gut.

Students from Pierce County Middle School sort through the results of a trawl as part of an education program at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

Students from Pierce County Middle School sort through the results of a trawl as part of an education program at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

“The first thing we have to do is to subject the gut contents to some extremely harsh chemicals to destroy the flesh and leave us mostly with the plastics,” Brandes said. “When dissecting even a small fish, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack if you don’t get rid of all the other stuff.”

What is left is examined under a microscope and the plastic pieces identified and counted. The researchers have already found some surprises. Everywhere they look, whether it is beach sand or the contents of a fish’s stomach, they are seeing microfibers, extremely fine synthetic fiber used to create textiles.

According to Brandes, microfibers are pervasive—so much so that when the researchers take samples to the laboratory they have to take special measures to prevent contamination of their samples from microfibers floating in the air. It is not clear, however, if the microfibers are causing any harm to the marine organisms that ingest them.

“We are not finding fish with their stomachs packed with microfibers,” Brandes said. “It’s hard to tell if they are causing any real problems.”

The project also has an educational component. Brandes has taught workshops in which he takes  groups of K-12 teachers to Tybee Island to collect sand and return it to the laboratory for microscopic analysis. He says the teachers are usually shocked with what they see.

“Hey, you thought that sand was clean, and from a tourist standpoint it is,” he said. “But there is still stuff in there and then you start talking about where it came from and what kinds of effects it may have.”

The project is expected to be completed and the results published by early 2018.

UGA Skidaway Institute’s Alexander honored by coastal environmental group

January 5, 2017

University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography Interim Executive Director Clark Alexander has been honored by the coastal environmental group One Hundred Miles as one of the group’s One Hundred Miles 100. The list is the first recognition of its kind to honor 100 individuals and organizations for their efforts to support the health, vitality and future of Georgia’s 100-mile coastline. Alexander was selected within the Researchers and Innovators category.

Alexander, a coastal geologist, was cited for his research efforts, which he began on the Georgia coast in 1989 when he first joined UGA Skidaway Institute. He was also cited by the environmental group for helping to advance the work of institutions across the coast. Alexander served on the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Advisory Board, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and the Georgia Coastal Marshlands and Shore Protection Committees.clark-alexander-10-w

“Day in and day out, Clark advances our understanding of critical issues facing Georgia’s coast, including barrier island erosion patterns and the effects of climate change on marsh habitats,” his citation reads.

“Georgia’s coast is extremely fortunate to be under the stewardship of these exceptional leaders, conservationists and individuals who recognize its incomparable character and beauty and the essential role it plays in the well-being of our state,” said Catherine Ridley, vice president of education and communications at One Hundred Miles.

Alexander and the other honorees will be recognized with a reception immediately following the One Hundred Miles’ Coastal Conservation in Action: Choosing to Lead Conference on Saturday, Jan. 7, on Jekyll Island.

A full list of honorees is available at www.OneHundredMiles.org/OHM100.

Fall black gill cruise rolls out new research

November 10, 2016

The University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography entered the fourth year of its black gill research program with a daylong cruise on board the Research Vessel Savannah and the introduction of a new smartphone app that will allow shrimpers to help scientists collect data on the problem.

Led by UGA scientists Marc Frischer, Richard Lee, Kyle Johnsen and Jeb Byers, the black gill study is being conducted in partnership with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and is funded by Georgia Sea Grant.

Black gill is a condition Georgia shrimpers first noticed in the mid-1990s. Many shrimpers have blamed black gill for poor shrimp harvests in recent years, but until Frischer began his study, almost nothing was known about the condition. Now the researchers know black gill is caused by a parasite—a single-cell animal called a ciliate—although the exact type of ciliate is still a mystery.

The October cruise had three goals. The first was simply to collect data and live shrimp for additional experiments.

 

“We were able to collect enough live shrimp in good shape to set up our next experiment,” Frischer said. “We are planning on running another direct mortality study to investigate the relationship between temperature and black gill mortality. This time, instead of comparing ambient temperature to cooler temperatures as we did last spring and summer, we will investigate the effects of warming.”

Researchers Marc Frischer (UGA Skidaway Institute), Brian Fluech and Lisa Gentit (both UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant) examine shrimp for signs of black gill.

Researchers Marc Frischer (UGA Skidaway Institute), Brian Fluech and Lisa Gentit (both UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant) examine shrimp for signs of black gill.

If his hypothesis is correct, Frischer believes researchers would expect that raising fall water temperatures to warmer summer levels in a laboratory setting will induce black gill associated mortality in the shrimp caught in the fall.

Those studies will be compared to those that are being conducted in South Carolina in a slightly different manner. Frischer expects the results should be similar.

“However, as it goes with research, we are expecting surprises,” Frischer continued. “We also collected a good set of samples that will contribute to our understanding of the distribution and impact of black gill.”

A second goal was to introduce and begin field testing a new smartphone application developed by Johnsen. The app is intended to be a tool that will allow shrimp boat captains and recreational shrimpers to assist the researchers by filling some of the holes in the data by documenting the extent of black gill throughout the shrimp season. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducts surveys of the shrimp population up and down the coast throughout the year. However, those surveys do not provide the researchers with the rich data set they need to really get an accurate assessment of the black gill problem.

A sample screen shot of the black gill smartphone application.

A sample screen shot of the black gill smartphone application.

“Instead of having just one boat surveying the prevalence of black gill, imagine if we had a dozen, or 50 or a hundred boats all working with us,” Frischer said. “That’s the idea behind this app.”

The fishermen will use the app to document their trawls and report their data to a central database. Using GPS and the camera on their smartphone, they will record the location and images of the shrimp catch, allowing the researchers to see what the shrimpers see. If repeated by many shrimpers throughout the shrimping season, the information would give scientists a much more detailed picture of the prevalence and distribution of black gill.

“The app is complete and available on the app store, but we are still in the testing stages,” Johnsen said. “We want to make sure that it will be robust and as easy to use on a ship as possible before widely deploying it.”

Recruiting, training and coordinating the shrimpers will be the responsibility of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

“I think it should be entirely possible to at least have a small group of captains comfortable and ready to start using it when the 2017 season begins,” Frischer said.

Johnsen is excited about the app for what it can provide to the shrimping and research community, but also the implications it has for using apps to involve communities in general.

“There is still work to be done to improve the usability of these systems,” he said. “But I’m confident that we are going to see an increasing number of these ‘citizen science’ applications going forward.”

The final aim of the cruise was to bring together diverse stakeholders, including fishery managers, shrimpers and scientists, to spend the day together and share ideas.

“This was a good venue for promoting cross-talk among the stakeholder groups,” Frischer said. “I had many good conversations and appreciated the opportunity to provide a few more research updates.”

Georgia DNR's Pat Geer sorts through the marine life caught in a trawl net.

Georgia DNR’s Pat Geer sorts through the marine life caught in a trawl net.

Frischer says he thinks the communication and cooperation among the various stakeholder groups has improved dramatically since the beginning of the study. He recalled that when the study began in 2013, tensions were high. Shrimpers were angry and demanded that something be done to address the problem of black gill. Meanwhile, fishery managers were unclear if black gill was even causing a problem and frustrated that no one could provide them any reliable scientific advice. The research community had not been engaged and given the resources to pursue valid investigations.

“In 2016, we still have black gill. The fishery is still in trouble, but it does feel like we are at least understanding a bit more about the issue,” Frischer said. “Most importantly, it is clear that all of us are now working together.

“My feeling is that the opportunity for us to spend a day like that together helps promote understanding, communication and trust among the shrimpers, managers and researchers.”

UGA Skidaway Institute scientists study role of sunlight on marine carbon dioxide production

July 21, 2016

Scientists at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography have received a $527,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Chemical Oceanography Program to answer one of the long-standing questions about carbon in the ocean—the rate sunlight produces carbon dioxide from organic carbon molecules in the sea.

Jay Brandes, Leanne Powers and Aron Stubbins will use a new technique they developed to measure this process, which is known as photo-degradation.

Researchers Aron Stubbins (l) and Jay Brandes

Researchers Aron Stubbins (l) and Jay Brandes

The ocean is full of millions of different types of organic compounds. Some are consumed by bacteria, but many are not easily consumed and remain in the ocean for hundreds or thousands of years. However, near the surface, sunlight causes the breakdown of organic compounds and converts them into carbon dioxide through photo-degradation. Until recently, this process has been nearly impossible to measure directly in most of the ocean because the additional carbon dioxide produced per day is tiny compared to the existing high concentration of CO2 present in the sea.

Researcher Leanne Powers

Researcher Leanne Powers

Brandes described the problem as looking for a needle in a haystack.

“You might think this is not important because it is hard to measure, but that’s not true,” he said. “We’re talking about a process that takes place across the whole ocean. When you integrate that over such a vast area, it becomes a potentially very important process.”

The project became possible when the team developed a new technique to measure the change in CO2 concentration in a seawater sample. The concept was the brainchild of Powers, a Skidaway Institute post-doctoral research associate. The technique uses carbon 13, a rare, stable isotope of carbon that contains an extra neutron in its nucleus. Researchers will add a carbon 13 compound to a sample of seawater and then bombard the sample with light. The scientists will then use an instrument known as an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to measure the changes in CO2 concentration.

According to Brandes, this project will be breaking new ground in the field of chemical oceanography.

“We don’t know what the photo-degradation rates are in most of the ocean,” he said. “We are going to establish the first numbers for that.”

The team plans to take samples off the Georgia coast, as well as from Bermuda and Hawaii.

While they will continue to refine the carbon 13 technique, Brandes said it is now time to put that tool to work.

“It is now a matter of establishing what the numbers are in these different locations and trying to develop a global budget,” he said. “Just how much dissolved organic carbon is removed and converted to CO2 every year?”

The project is funded for three years. The team will also create an aquarium exhibit at the UGA Aquarium on the Skidaway Island campus to help student groups and the public understand river and ocean color.

VIDEO — Teachers participate in hands-on science research on UGA Skidaway Institute research cruises

June 20, 2016

Black gill TV story

June 14, 2016

We had a cruise yesterday that had two purposes — to collect data and samples for the black gill research project, and also to provide  a group of K-12 teachers an up-close-and-personal look at marine field research. We also had two TV reporters along. Here is the report from WTOC’s Marla Rooker.

http://www.wtoc.com/story/32211236/black-gill-continues-to-impact-georgia-shrimp

 

UGA Skidaway Institute team studies nutrient levels in Georgia’s coastal estuaries

June 6, 2016

How much of a nutrient load is too much for Georgia’s coastal rivers and estuaries? A research team from University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography is helping Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division answer that question. Their primary focus is on the estuary at the mouth of the Ogeechee River, where the researchers are measuring nutrient concentrations and other water properties to determine how they change as they flow through the estuary.

The nutrients are chemicals like nitrates and phosphates typically introduced into the rivers by agricultural runoff, storm water or sewage effluents, and the natural decay of organic matter in the river. When present in high concentrations, the nutrients act as fertilizer, promoting excessive growth of marine plants, especially microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton.

Researcher Kate Doyle lowers a sensor package into the water to measure salinity, temperature and depth.

Researcher Kate Doyle lowers a sensor package into the water to measure salinity, temperature and depth.

Elsewhere on the East Coast, excessive nutrients in estuaries have been linked to toxic algal blooms that can cause fish kills or shellfish closures. Death and decay of algal blooms by bacteria can drive oxygen concentrations down to levels that are unhealthy for other marine life. These are not presently known to be significant problems in Georgia’s waters, but scientists and regulators do not know what the thresholds are for developing water quality problems.

“The Georgia EPD wants to know how much nitrogen is coming down the river and whether it has any consequences when it gets to the estuary,” said UGA Skidaway Institute scientist William Savidge. “It doesn’t really matter if you have high nutrient concentrations if it is not having a harmful effect.”

The EPD is interested in these issues because they are mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on nutrient levels for Georgia’s estuaries. Savidge describes the mandate as a difficult problem for several reasons.

“There is not any current and systematic information on nutrient conditions in most of the estuaries,” he said, “nor is there much information on the consequences of nutrient availability in the estuaries, and it’s those consequences that are the most important.”

They are currently mapping the biological and chemical properties of the Ogeechee River estuary each season to assess the nutrient changes throughout the year and to see what effects can be seen in the river and the estuary. Twice every quarter for the last year, the researchers have followed the incoming tide and sampled the river continuously as they moved upstream from the mouth of the estuary to fresh water. They used an onboard set of sensors to obtain continuous surface measurements of temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll (indicative of phytoplankton), turbidity and colored dissolved organic matter. In addition to the continuous surface measurements, the team stopped periodically and collected water samples from the bottom and throughout the water column. The product of each of these expeditions was a detailed map of conditions on the river, and when and where they are changing.

Researcher Lixin Zhu filters larger-volume surface water samples collected from the flow-through system to analyze for dissolved organic carbon.

Researcher Lixin Zhu filters larger-volume surface water samples collected from the flow-through system to analyze for dissolved organic carbon.

As they expected, Savidge and his team observed a wide range of conditions depending on the season. Nutrient inputs tend to be highest in the spring when agricultural fields are fertilized.

“Nutrient delivery is high in the spring, but we don’t have a high chlorophyll concentration in the Ogeechee River because, presumably, the nutrients are being washed off into the coastal ocean before any effect is noticed,” Savidge said

On the other hand, chlorophyll levels — which indicate phytoplankton population — are highest in the summer. Low summer river flow means water remains in the system longer. When combined with more sunlight and warmer temperatures, this slow flow this allows more time for the microscopic plants to grow.

In addition to sampling the Ogeechee River, the team is also conducting a smaller sampling project in the Altamaha River for comparison purposes.

Field work on the project will end in June, and Savidge expects to report the team’s findings to Georgia EPD by mid-summer.

“The Georgia EPD is going to have to balance the potential negative risks of nutrient loading versus the economic consequences of restricting nutrient additions,” Savidge said. “If, for example, most of the nutrient additions are agricultural, and that is creating problems downstream, the Georgia EPD may be forced by EPA to regulate nutrient additions, either by restricting how much fertilizer is placed on fields or mandating larger buffer zones around rivers and creeks.”

In addition to Savidge, the research team includes UGA Skidaway Institute scientists Jay Brandes and Aron Stubbins, research associate Kate Doyle and graduate student Lixin Zhu. UGA researchers Brock Woodson and Mandy Joye are also contributing.

Skidaway building rehabilitation and repurposing project approved

May 4, 2016

We had some good news this week. Governor Nathan Deal signed the FY17 Georgia state budget which includes a $3 million bond package for UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography to renovate and repurpose the old Roebling cattle barn.

The barn as it looks today.

The barn as it looks today.

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The barn’s interior

The circa-1947 building is in poor condition and not currently functional as laboratory, teaching or meeting space. Renovations will allow UGA Skidaway Institute to repurpose the 14,000 square foot facility to include research laboratories, a teaching laboratory and lecture space for students and community groups.

The renovated facility will become home to the Center for Coastal Hydrology and Marine Processes (CHAMP), with a focus on research and education directed toward understanding influences on coastal systems and the wise stewardship of coastal resources.

“We want to thank Governor Deal and the General Assembly, especially Representative Jesse Petrea, Senator Ben Watson and the rest of our local delegation, for their support for this project,” said UGA Skidaway Institute Executive Director Jim Sanders. “This support will allow us to put a wonderful, historic structure to work for the benefit of coastal Georgia.”

Beginning in the mid-1930s, Robert Roebling and his family operated a cattle plantation, known as Modena Plantation, on the north end of Skidaway Island. In 1968, the Roeblings donated their land to the State of Georgia, a move that spurred the establishment of Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. The Roeblings constructed the barn from steel and concrete after World War II.

The barn under construction in the late 1940s.

The barn under construction in the late 1940s.

Under construction.

Under construction.

It was the site of the plantation’s annual cattle auctions. The Roebling’s daughter, Ellin Cochran Roebling, was married there in 1950.

The Ellin Roebling-Donnell Watkins wedding in 1950.

The Ellin Roebling-Donnell Watkins wedding in 1950.

Over the past 47 years, the barn has served a variety of purposes. Currently, it is used primarily for storage.

Video — UGA Skidaway Institute scientists complete sea level study on Georgia coast

February 25, 2016

Sea level is projected to rise at least one meter by 2100. Where will that water go and how will it change the Georgia coastal ecosystem? University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Clark Alexander and Georgia Southern University researcher Christine Hladik are attempting to answer those questions.

https://youtu.be/vNFrxb4cytU

UGA Skidaway Institute researchers study sand resources near the Georgia coast

January 7, 2016

If a hurricane hits the Georgia coast, a major priority for coastal communities will be finding sand to rebuild beaches destroyed by erosion. University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Clark Alexander has received funding approval from Georgia Sea Grant for a two-year study to collect and analyze new, high-resolution data to identify the sand resources available near the Georgia coast.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damages to communities along the east coast of the U.S. Coastal communities in Georgia are vulnerable to future storms, and some have begun to develop strategies to increase their resilience to such storms and to speed their recovery from one. When it comes to restoring storm-eroded beaches, those communities will require a detailed understanding of the locations and characteristics of the available sand resources they will need.

Beaches like Glory Beach on Jekyll Island may potentially benefit from the sand resource study.  Photo Credit: www.GoldenIsles.com

Beaches like Glory Beach on Jekyll Island may potentially benefit from the sand resource study.
Photo Credit: http://www.GoldenIsles.com

“Sand resources are needed to rebuild beach and dune systems to provide the same or better levels of protection to lives and property,” Alexander said. “These sand resources data are critically needed in Georgia, as the sand resources in our state waters are the most poorly known of all the states along the East Coast.”

The study will focus on three developed barrier islands that have not been renourished — Sea Island, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island. The project will gather new samples and data on seabed sediment texture and composition from the beach out to the state-waters boundary, three nautical miles offshore. The researchers will merge that data with existing samples from the beaches and the sea bed and integrate all the samples to determine where sand deposits are located that would be suitable for beach renourishment.

“Typically, we find a wide range of sand, and not all of it is beach-quality,” Alexander said. “We need to locate sand deposits that have similar size and composition to the natural beach.”

The team will collect beach grain size samples during both the summer and winter to assess the differences in texture and composition in the beach in response to changing storm, tide and wave conditions.

The sea floor in the study region has not been comprehensively surveyed since the 1930s. Another part of the project will be to use an echosounder to collect data on the depth and morphology of the sea bed. This data will be used to create bathymetric maps of the ocean bottom. These maps will also identify regions of thicker sand deposits, which indicate greater volumes of sand.

The researchers will then combine the new information with existing data in a Geographic Information System tool to integrate the sand resource and bathymetry information and model the extent of beach-quality deposits in the Sea Island to Jekyll Island region.

The results of the project will be made available online to government officials, the management community and the general public on a number of Web sites, including the Georgia Coastal Hazards Portal (http://gchp.skio.usg.edu/) developed by Alexander.

Georgia Sea Grant is a unit of the UGA Office of Public Service and Outreach.