Center for Marine Science

Aquatic Ecology Laboratory Research


Removing Coastal Stormwater Pollution at the Community and Individual Scales in North Carolina- This project is 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) are being 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 is measuring fecal bacterial counts, stormwater flow and pollutant discharge before, during and after remediation.

Quantification of Fecal Bacteria Removal by Micro-zooplankton Grazing in Stormwater BMPs- This project is co-directed by Dr. Mallin and Dr. Larry Cahoon and is funded by the Water Resources Research institute of the University of North Carolina. In this research we are investigating what factors account for loss of fecal bacteria as stormwater passes through constructed wetlands and wet detention ponds. Experiments are being performed analyzing grazing by microzooplankton (rotifers and protozoans) in vegetated versus non-vegetated areas, as well as using individual macrophyte species, to determine optimal wetland designs for fecal microbe removal.

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 in 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 this 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 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 Lab (Benthic Ecology Laboratory).

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) 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. Current efforts also include a comprehensive study of nutrients, BOD and algal blooms in Greenfield Lake, and an analysis of the pollutant removal capacity of the new JEL Wade wetland. This project is funded by and designed in cooperation with the City of Wilmington Engineering Department and its Stormwater Services Program.


Wetland Denitrification/ANAMMOX Project- The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory recently completed a project with Dr. BK Song (formerly of UNCW and now at VIMS) that was funded by the UNC Water Resources Research Institute. 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. Additionally, this research showed that locally invasive species such as cattail Typha angustifolia, alligatorweed Alternanthera philoxeroides and soft rush Juncus effuses can play a significant role in N-removal as well. This research also indicated that constructed stormwater wetlands in warm climates (with a long growing season) may be particularly effective in enhancing denitrification.

JEL Wade Wetland Project- In late 2007, the City of Wilmington finished construction of a dual-purpose recreation area and stormwater treatment wetland at 3500 Bethel Rd. The park was inaugurated as the James E.L. Wade Park in January 2009 and serves as a popular destination for visitors and wildlife. This 12 acre stormwater wetland is designed to reduce a variety of pollutants from the inflowing water entering from the western boundary. At the eastern edge of the wetland, treated water is discharged and eventually flows into Hewlett's Creek. The Aquatic Ecology Laboratory was contracted by the city to determine the efficacy of the wetland at removing pollutants including heavy metals, hydrocarbons, fecal bacteria, suspended sediments and nutrients (2010 Report). The data demonstrated that this wetland was highly effective in reducing pollutant loads of fecal bacteria, ammknium, 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. For more information please visit the City of Wilmington's James E.L. Wade Park information page .

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). Optical Brighteners were analyzed as well to determine the possibility of sanitary sewage inputs. The lack of sewage inputs and lack of septic tanks, coupled with significant human signal 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. Project Final Report 2009

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 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 poject in January 2009 in partnership with The Coastal Federation, New Hanover County Planning Department, North Carloina 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 involves water quality (Dr. Michael Mallin and Dr. Larry Cahoon), the benthos (Dr. Martin Posey), ichthyological assemblages (Dr. Tom Lankford), zooplankton and phytoplankton assemblages (Dr. Michael Mallin and Dr. Larry Cahoon), sediment analysis (Dr. Lynn Leonard and Dr. Nancy Grindlay), physical oceanography (Dr. Fred Bingham), water spectral characteristics (Dr. Mike Durako), and dissolved organic matter (Dr. Bill Cooper).

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 is being 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 and associates 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. These water resources are diverse, and include open marine and estuarine waters, marine, oligohaline, and freshwater wetlands, tidal creeks, perennial and temporary pools, and groundwater. These parks are generally free of point source pollution and agricultural runoff, but nearby marine waters are affected by pollution from major nearby river systems (Cumberland Island, GA), or by local septic system contamination (Cape Hatteras National Seashore). UNCW has 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 ).

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 bactera results fom this study were used to develop stricter coastal development regulations for North Carolina.

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. Maon'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 samlping 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 initiated 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. Physical parameters were collected both on site during water sample collection and on a high-frequency basis through diel studies with in-situ instruments. Because Bald Head Creek has a low level of human development surrounding it the project location makes an excellent contrast to the highly developed tidal creeks we study under the New Hanover County Tidal Creeks Program. (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.