Center for Marine Science

Aquatic Ecology Laboratory Research


Lower Cape Fear River Program
Since 1995 the UNCW Aquatic Ecology Laboratory has regularly collected data on numerous physical, chemical and biological parameters at 35 locations the Lower Cape Fear River Watershed as part of the Lower Cape Fear River Program (LCFRP). Data are utilized by the many stakeholders in the Cape Fear River basin including environmental groups, municipalities, regulatory agencies and educational entities. Comprehensive environmental reports are issued to interested parties annually. Current and past research projects in the watershed include analysis of animal waste lagoon spills, effects of hurricanes and storms on water quality, factors controlling phytoplankton production in the estuary and tributary rivers, factors contributing to Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) loads in the Cape Fear Watershed and the effect of nutrient loading on the biota and metabolism of blackwater streams. In conjunction with the water quality sampling benthos is analyzed by the UNCW Benthic Ecology Laboratory.

Assessing Innovative Stormwater Management on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
This 2017-2018 project funded by the North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) assessed the efficacy of various stormwater treatment best management practices (BMPs) to control runoff in the area surrounding the Hanover Seaside Club in the Town of Wrightsville Beach. During rain events polluted runoff from the streets and terrestrial areas of the Town enters Bank's Channel, therefore the Town partnered with the NCCF and UNCW AEL to improve local water quality. PhD. candidate Amy Grogan spearheaded this project. See the final report here.

Assessing Nutrient Inputs to Greenfield Lake for Lake Restoration Guidance. This 2017-2022 project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is intended to provide technical guidance toward the rehabilitation of eutrophic Greenfield Lake in downtown Wilmington by assessing nutrient loading to the lake. This was the basis for Nick Iraola’s Master’s Thesis. A recent paper by our laboratory that was published in the journal Lake and Reservoir Management, 32:2, 168-181 described the worsening of the lake’s water quality and we hope to work together as partners to rehabilitate this highly visible recreational lake.

Reduction of Nutrient Loading to Greenfield Lake from Jumping Run Branch, Wilmington, N.C., Phase I.  This project is a collaborative effort between the city of Wilmington, Cape Fear River Watch, UNC Wilmington, NCSU and Moffat & Nichol to rehabilitate the Jumping Run Branch of Greenfield Lake to reduce nutrient loading.  Funding is through the NCDEQ 319 program. This phase runs from 2020-2022 and will concentrate on refurbishing a degraded wetland and as well as a detention pond outfall to enhance nutrient removal.  

The City of Wilmington Watersheds Project
In the fall of 1997 the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory began a project assessing water quality in each of the City of Wilmington's watersheds. Environmental Reports are published annually, several of which are available online (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, Burnt Mill Creek, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021) This includes collecting baseline data on pollutants such as nutrients, fecal coliform bacteria, turbidity, and other parameters, analyzing effectiveness of large stormwater detention ponds and constructed wetlands, runoff from golf courses, and effect of loadings on adjacent waterways. This project is funded by and designed in cooperation with the City of Wilmington Engineering Department and its Stormwater Services Program.


Quantification of Fecal Bacteria Removal by Micro-zooplankton Grazing in Stormwater BMPs
This project was co-directed by Dr. Mallin and Dr. Larry Cahoon and is funded by the Water Resources Research institute of the University of North Carolina and was the basis for Jade Burchett's Master's Thesis. In this research we investigated how microzooplankton (rotifers and protozoans) grazing accounted for loss of fecal bacteria as stormwater passes through constructed wetlands and wet detention ponds. We found that microzooplankton grazing was a significant fecal bacteria removal factor with grazing higher in vegetated versus non-vegetated areas and higher in constructed wetlands than wet detention ponds. This research was published in Water Science and Technology. 75:2702-2715.

Stocking Head Creek Environmental Investigations – These 2013 and 2016 projects funded by the Waterkeeper Alliance determined that a stream in a swine and poultry CAFO-rich watershed in southeastern North Carolina was extremely polluted by fecal bacteria and nutrients from the dense concentration of CAFOs and that spraying of swine waste onto surrounding fields especially was a major contribution to the pollution. The findings of this research was published in Water Air Soil Pollut (2015) 226: 407 and Journal of Water and Health (2018) 16.1.

Removing Coastal Stormwater Pollution at the Community and Individual Scales in North Carolina- This project was funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve and represents collaborations between our laboratory, the NC Coastal Federation, Wilmington Stormwater Services, the Town of Wrightsville Beach, and Withers & Ravenel Engineering. In this effort a number of BMPs (best management practices) were installed in the Town of Wrightsville Beach and an area of Wilmington near Hewletts Creek to reduce stormwater runoff and fecal bacterial contamination. Our laboratory measured fecal bacterial counts, stormwater flow and pollutant discharge before, during and after remediation and found the BMPs to be highly successful in reducing pollution. The results of the research have been published in the Journal of Coastal Research 32(4), 923-931.

Wetland Denitrification/ANAMMOX Project- The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory completed a project with Dr. BK Song (formerly of UNCW and now at VIMS) that was funded by the UNC Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI). A variety of molecular, chemical and physical analyses was used to determine optimal conditions and locations within a constructed wetland that enhance denitrification and ANAMMOX. Denitrification was the dominant N removal pathway of this system, contributing up to 71% of the N2 production in the bare sediments and 78% in aquatic macrophyte rhizospheres. The activity and abundance of both ANAMMOX and denitrification were found to be higher in the rhizosphere compared to bare sediments. Rhizospheric denitrification and ANAMMOX activities were much higher in the summer than in the fall. These results demonstrated that wetland vegetation plays a major role in N-removal from incoming stormwater. Furthermore, following wetland construction, specific wetland species can be emphasized in plantings in order to maximize N removal, with Pontederia cordata a clear choice. This research also indicated that constructed stormwater wetlands in warm climates (with a long growing season) may be particularly effective in enhancing denitrification. WRRI Report

JEL Wade Wetland Project- In late 2007, the City of Wilmington finished construction of the J.E.L. Wade Wetland in January 2009 which serves as a popular destination for visitors and wildlife. The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory determined that this 12 acre stormwater wetland was highly effective in reducing pollutant loads of fecal bacteria, ammonium, nitrate, phosphorus, suspended solids and even selected metals. With increasing urbanization occurring in southeastern North Carolina, such wetlands may be an important method to mitigate disturbances to our coastal areas. The results of this research have been published in the Journal of Environmental Quality 41:2046-2055.

Motts and Barnards Creeks- The UNCW Aquatic Ecology Laboratory performed a project from fall 2008 through 2011 monitoring the water quality of Motts and Barnards creeks in New Hanover County, NC. Both creeks drain into the Cape Fear River Estuary. This project was funded by the Newland Real Estate Group, LLC which is spearheading a new "green" multi-use development flanked by these creeks called River Lights.

Assessing Fecal Bacteria Sources at Wrightsville Beach, NC- Wrightsville Beach is a popular vacation destination for boaters, swimmers, surfers and beach lovers. Periodic elevated fecal bacteria counts in some of the inland channels prompted the Town Wrightsville Beach to contract with the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory to determine the sources of these bacteria. In collaboration with the laboratory of Dr. B. Song (formerly of UNCW and now at VIMS) samples for fecal coliform bacteria and Enterococcus were collected and analyzed using PCR based techniques to determine the sources of the pollutants (human, canine or ruminant). Results led to the conclusion that boat head discharge was the primary source of fecal pollution into the waters around Wrightsville Beach. This research led directly to this coastal area being designated the first marine no-discharge zone (NDZ) between Delaware and the Florida Keys. The results of this research were published in the Journal of Environmental Management 91:2748-2753.

Aquatic Ecology of the New River Estuary
From 1995 to 2009 the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory studied water quality, algal bloom formation and nutrient limitation in the New River Estuary, North Carolina (2008-2009 Water Quality Report). Funding was provided by several entities including the USMC at Camp Lejeune, UNC Water Resources Research Institute and the NCSU Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology. We have published results of damage caused by a major swine waste spill to the New River and its estuary, results of nutrient limitation experiments in the estuary, as well as eutrophication reversal (Estuaries. 28: 750-760) after sewer plant upgrades. Research on the New River Estuary has also been the subject of several presentations and posters at national water quality conferences.

Eagle Point Golf Club
The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory participated in a project in January 2009 in partnership with The Coastal Federation, New Hanover County Planning Department, North Carolina State University and Eagle Point Golf Club to study stormwater runoff issues and devise Best Management Practices to control runoff at the golf course located in northern New Hanover County, NC (Final Report). This study was funded by the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

The Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program
From 2000-2008 several researchers from UNCW performed a broad scale analysis of the coastal ocean adjacent to southeastern North Carolina, the South Atlantic Bight. The South Atlantic Bight supports a variety of important resources and uses including hydrocarbons, hard minerals, fisheries, protected species, recreation, navigation and cultural resources. Two major areas in the South Atlantic Bight were studied including Onslow Bay and the Cape Fear River Plume. Research involved water quality, the benthos, ichthyological, zooplankton and phytoplankton assemblages, sediment analysis, physical oceanography, water spectral characteristics and dissolved organic matter. A research paper was published describing key ecosystem differences between Onslow Bay and Long Bay in Estuarine Coastal & Shelf Science (2005) 62:55-62.

Water Quality of Caswell Beach
In 2008 the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory completed a study analyzing the pollutant load (fecal bacteria and nutrients) entering, within, and exiting a golf course and major residential area at Caswell Beach, NC. This work was funded by the Town of Caswell Beach (Water quality report 2008).

Assessment of Water Resources and Watershed Conditions in Six Inland National Parks in the Southeastern U.S.
This study was in collaboration with Dr. JoAnn Burkholder and the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology of North Carolina State University. We analyzed present and previous water quality and quantity conditions in the following parks: Moore's Creek in North Carolina (Moore's Creek Report), Congaree Park in South Carolina, Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, and Kennesaw Mountain, Ocmulgee, and Chattahoochee Parks in Georgia. This effort was funded by the National Park Service, Southeast Coast Network.

Assessment of Coastal National Parks in the Southeastern U.S.
The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory, in conjunction with Dr. Merryl Alber at the University of Georgia Department of Marine Sciences, was funded by the National Park Service, Water Resources Division, to synthesize what is known about the water resources of National Parks along the Southeast coast. UNCW completed reports on Cape Lookout National Seashore and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. These reports have been published by the Park Service and can be downloaded from their website (NPS Coastal Watershed Condition Website). In a follow-up project in 2007 our laboratory did an-in-depth study of water quality and pollution sources to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and published the results in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin 64:1356-1366.

New Hanover County Tidal Creeks Project
Between 1993 and 2007 we conducted research on bacterial pollution, algal blooms, effect of tides on water quality parameters, nutrient limitation of phytoplankton productivity, and nutrient loading in five tidal creeks in New Hanover County, with annual reports regularly published. A major accomplishment of this project was publication of a set of management recommendations for environmentally-sound coastal development practices. The fecal bacteria results from this study were used to develop stricter coastal development regulations for North Carolina and the research resulted in several M.S. Theses.

Mason's Inlet Relocation Project
The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory conducted a pre-dredging and post-dredging water quality monitoring project at Mason's Inlet, New Hanover County, North Carolina during 2001-2002. Mason's Inlet had moved south during the period 1993-1996 threatening a large hotel on the north end of Wrightsville Beach. New Hanover County received permits to relocate the inlet northward and was required to monitor water quality as part of the permit. Pre-relocation sampling was conducted in the winter of 2001-2002 and post-relocation sampling was conducted in spring of 2002. (Final Report)

Bald Head Creek Environmental Analysis
The Village of Bald Head Island applied for a permit in 2003 to dredge the mouth of Bald Head Creek in order to improve flushing and water quality, potentially re-opening shellfishing in the creek which had been illegal for several years due to poor water quality. The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory performed a program to collect pre-dredging and post-dredging water quality data to analyze the success of this estuarine manipulation project. Data collected included fecal coliform bacteria, nitrate, phosphate, ammonium, chlorophyll a, total suspended solids, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and salinity. (Bald Head Creek Environmental Report)

Field Conditions for Pfiesteria Growth
The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory worked in coordination with the North Carolina State University Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology to characterize field conditions supporting the growth of the toxic dinoflagellate Pfiesteria piscicida in the New River Estuary, the New Hanover County Tidal Creeks system, and the Cape Fear River Estuary.

Assessing the Relationship between Phosphorous and Fecal Microbes in Blackwater Stream Sediments
In collaboration with Dr. Larry Cahoon of the UNCW Biological Sciences Department the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory conducted a study of the sediments of blackwater streams in the Cape Fear River basin. In this project our primary goal was to assess the ability of these stream sediments to serve as a reserve and potential incubator for fecal pathogen indicator organisms, particularly in terms of sediment nutrient content. These streams receive nutrient loading and potentially fecal pathogens from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), yet are utilized for recreation by the public. This research was funded by the Water Resources Research Institute of the University of North Carolina.