Friday, August 17, 2018

UNCW Researchers Receive $138,000 Grant to Study Metals in Lower Cape Fear River

Two UNCW researchers have received a $138,600 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to investigate the bioaccumulation of mercury, arsenic and selenium in the Lower Cape Fear River estuarine system. The project will help scientists better understand pathways of contamination by heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. The grant continues funding of research that began as a pilot project funded last year by the UNCW Center for Marine Science.Steve Emslie

Steven Emslie, professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology, and Stephen Skrabal, professor of chemistry and associate director for education at the Center for Marine Science, will examine accumulation pathways throughout the food web by focusing on filter-feeding bivalves (eastern oysters and ribbed mussels) and a local nesting shorebird that is also a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need in NC,” the American oystercatcher.

“While individual species have been studied for toxic metals in the Cape Fear, no one has yet looked at the entire food web at multiple trophic levels to fully understand the bioaccumulation that is occurring here,” said Emslie. “Since some of the species in this food web are harvested for human consumption, knowledge of these processes has implications for human health as well as the health of the estuarine ecosystem.” 

In addition to collecting bird feathers, shells and shellfish tissues, researchers will sample benthic and suspended sediments near the oyster and mussel beds for additional analysis of sequestered metaStephen Skraballs at three sites near the oystercatcher breeding areas in the Lower Cape Fear River, said Emslie.

Scientists will collaborate with the NC Wildlife Resource Commission and Audubon NC as well as ongoing faculty research projects at UNCW to collect 220 tissue and 45 sediment samples per year from the watershed. Results of three-year sampling will provide baseline data that can assist management of key species and help maintain the long-term health of this system, Emslie added.

Audubon also is allowing access to dredge islands on the river where these birds nest and is providing use of their boats to help collect samples.

The two-year project begins in December 2018 and will involve undergraduate and graduate students. Emslie noted that outreach programs at local Title I schools in New Hanover County also will be initiated, adding to the long-term benefits of this project.

-- Venita Jenkins