College of Arts & Sciences

UNCW Researchers Awarded National Estuarine Research Grant for Coastal Ecosystem Study

JANUARY 17, 2023

Researchers from UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology and the Center for Marine Science have been awarded an almost $400,000 National Estuarine Research Reserve Science Collaborative Grant to further their research on seagrasses that are vital to coastal ecosystems.

Dr. Jessie C. Jarvis serves as PI and Dr. Stephanie Kamel as Co-PI on the project entitled “Evaluating and Enhancing Eelgrass Resiliency and Restoration Potential in a Changing Climate.”

Seagrasses provide habitat and nurseries for fisheries species, help improve water quality and help fight climate change by burying carbon.

Recently, higher ocean water temperatures have resulted in large-scale diebacks of eelgrass (Zostera marina) meadows in the lower Chesapeake Bay (VA), resulting in a conversion from historically stable, dense meadows to low-density transitory ones. When seagrasses die back most of the habitat in that area is also lost. If the decline of eelgrass is large enough entire fisheries can be lost at a local level. For species that depend on seagrass as a habitat during their juvenile stages, like blue crabs, this can be particularly detrimental. In contrast, many eelgrass populations in Back Sound (NC) appear to be more resilient to warming water temperatures.

Eelgrass restoration efforts must consider the resiliency of the meadows to climate change to be viable options for long-term success. The loss of seagrass meadows is yet more evidence of climate change impacting the world around us.

“The Center for Marine Science is proud to have Drs. Jarvis and Kamel undertaking such an important effort that will inform science-based restoration decisions,” said CMS Executive Director Ken Halanych.

“The exciting aspect of this research is that it has the potential to move eelgrass restoration into a whole new direction,” says Jarvis. “Until now, we have been restoring eelgrass using seeds or shoots from areas where we can find adequate supplies of either.” 

While there are some amazing success stories, most of these restoration efforts fail due to climate change stressors within the environments. For instance, in the Chesapeake Bay temperature stress interacts with other environmental variables, like low light, limiting restoration success.

Kamel shares, “Our hope with this project is to help develop restoration methods that identify eelgrass populations that are resilient to temperature stressors.” Jarvis adds, “Restoring areas with temperature resilient seeds may reduce the interactive stressor effect and ultimately lead to greater overall eelgrass restoration success.” 

As temperatures continue to rise, eelgrass is going to continue to be stressed, here in NC and VA and further north up the coast. Halanych adds, “Their research is critical to ensuring resilience of seagrass habitats in the face of climate change.”

The work will provide a greater understanding of why some eelgrass meadows are more resilient to temperature stress than others and will provide a tool to identify potential seed sources of more temperature resilient eelgrass seeds. The research will provide scientific data to inform decisions. Having access to this information will benefit reserves, state agencies and nonprofits making important conservation, restoration and management decisions now and in the future, under a continuously warming climate. 

-ME Frizzell