HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – 12 Jan 11
University of Alabama Student Explores Mobile Bay Oyster Reefs
By: Heather L. Ogletree
When BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010, many of the Gulf's precious oyster reefs were killed. Some may ask, "So what? What do
oyster reefs have to do with life in the gulf?" This fall, one University of Alabama student was given the chance to find out.
As part of a 15 week hands-on research opportunity through the Undergraduate Student Research Project (USRP), Danielle Bolte worked with NASA Mentor Maury Estes to complete a project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., entitled "Evaluating the Effects of Climate Change on Oyster Reef Habitats in Mobile Bay."
Bolte said, "My project evaluate[d] the effects of climate change on oyster reefs in Mobile Bay, Ala. To do this , we used hydrologic models to evaluate the changes in the water column of Mobile Bay caused by climate change, and I created habitat maps for the oyster reefs for 2005, which [became] the baseline, and for 2025, which relied on the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] projections."
Estes added, "The models compare[d] various land use scenarios and climate scenarios for the Mobile Bay region....The physical changes in the aquatic environment [were] further evaluated to gauge the effects on the potential habitat ranges for submerged aquatic vegetation, seagrass, and oyster reefs ."
According to Bolte, "Oysters are what are known as ecosystem engineers." They provide a high quality habitat for multiple fish and invertebrate species such as white shrimp, crabs, speckled trout, redfish, and sheepshead. Oyster reefs also are partly responsible for slowing the erosion of the Alabama shorelines, for filtering sediment, and for facilitating the growth of seagrasses and marsh land.
Bill Finch, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, reported that the Mobile Bay appears "to have lost 70 to 90 percent of the bay's original oyster, marsh and seagrass habitat." In conjunction with the DPC's report that states on the Gulf Coast accounts for about 20% of seafood production and nearly 75% of shrimp caught in the U.S., it is likely that the restoration of the oyster reefs will have a viable economic as well as environmental impact on the proliferation of Gulf Coast region.
"What has been fascinating," said Bolte, "is learning what a large role they have in the ecosystem, when before this internship I had never seen or heard of an oyster reef.... Hopefully the maps of oyster reef habitats I've created will help guide the restoration efforts underway in Mobile Bay."
As part of her internship, Bolte was invited to present her findings at the Bays and Bayous Symposium to be held in Mobile, Ala., Dec. 1 and 2. Her presentation outlined the effects of future climate change on oyster reef habitats in Mobile Bay.
Bolte plans to attend graduate school upon completing her degree in earth science systems at University of Alabama in Huntsville and runs a horse training business in her off time. She hopes to one day be a second generation NASA employee, her mom has worked with NASA for several years as a technical editor supporting the Ares project. Bolte said, "I have enjoyed meeting the earth science team and learning more about what NASA does."