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Collaborating to understand coastal challenges

Coastal biology students on a boat doing tests
To many of us, oysters are best known as the tasty main course served at an oyster roast. To scientists, the bivalve mollusks serve a more crucial purpose. Within the estuaries they inhabit, oyster populations filter water and act as stabilizers to reduce shoreline erosion. Yet as the coast is confronted with environmental changes — rising sea levels and severe storms — will oysters be adversely affected, and will that alter the future health of the area’s coastline?

To answer these questions, Dr. Kelly Smith, associate professor of biology at UNF, and her students are regular visitors to the marsh, traveling by boat to study oysters and other coastal creatures. Many other UNF researchers are also studying fish and grasses in the area.

“The focus of our research is looking at the response of coastal organisms to the habitat,” Smith said. “We have to pay close attention to what’s happening with sea level rise and some weather events that we’re seeing in an effort to determine coastal resilience in the face of challenges ahead.”

Smith’s research is part of a consortium of scientists from the Northeast Florida Coastal Research and Education Corridor, which is comprised of three land parcels. On the south end is the 74,000-acre Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve also known as the GTM Research Reserve. With a focus on research and education, the Reserve is a collaboration between Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To the north is land owned by the North Florida Land Trust, a private, nonprofit organization committed to preserving environmentally significant land in Florida.

Situated in the middle is the William C. Webb Coastal Research Station, a 1,050-acre parcel donated to UNF in 2016 by the Widan Investment Corporation. Without the threat of future development, the UNF property, and the other protected lands within the corridor, offer the promise of ongoing scientific exploration and information sharing, according to Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, program director for UNF’s Coastal and Marine Biology Flagship Program.

“It makes logical sense for us to join together since we have essentially the same missions of preservation, research and education,” Gelsleichter said. “At UNF, we are now doing research that will serve as a baseline. Dr. Smith is looking at invertebrates and fish, and we have scientists working in many other areas, such as algae, plants and microscopic organisms, as well as collecting data on water quality and other measures.”

Future plans include installing a long-term monitoring system that will provide a continuous record over time, even during severe storms. In addition, UNF was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a five-year strategic plan for the use of the Webb Research Station. The grant will fund travel to comparable field research sites and bring experts here to provide guidance, which would add value to the entire corridor.

“This could someday become a national center for hosting visiting researchers who want a good system for testing some of their own approaches for improving coastal resilience,” Gelsleichter said.