For a marine scientist, one of the best parts of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is access to some incredible habitats. I have been able to experience this first-hand as I’ve started my MS research here at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) this summer. About half of the students in our Marine Sciences department have advisors at IMS, so they move to Morehead City after their first year to begin research. I’m lucky enough to be studying salt marshes and oyster reefs, so my research has brought me to some truly beautiful local sites. (It’s worth emphasizing, though, that marine science is not always so glamorous. About 20% of my time is spent outdoors during the summer, and that percentage will definitely decrease in the cooler months ahead.) The photograph above was taken at a restored salt marsh/oyster reef near the Morehead City port. The site was restored about 20 years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers, and as you can see, it’s doing well.
Oyster reefs can be generally categorized as either fringing reefs or patch reefs. Fringing reefs, like the one in the photograph, are located alongshore, often adjacent to salt marsh vegetation. Patch reefs look like small islands of oysters poking above the water surface. In either configuration, oysters provide important ecosystem services; that is, they facilitate processes that are valued by people. My research focuses on oyster reefs’ ability to remove nutrients such as nitrogen that could lead to eutrophication if not otherwise reduced. Oysters also contribute to water quality in a more general sense by filtering sediment, thereby increasing water clarity. The physical presence of oyster reefs helps diffuse wave energy, which limits coastal erosion and could provide much sturdier protection than artificial reinforcements like sea walls. The many small spaces in oyster reefs make them ideal habitat for fish larvae and other small critters, and oysters themselves are a valuable fishery, as anyone who enjoys oysters on the half shell will attest.
You may not have oyster reefs, fringing or otherwise, in your backyard, but hopefully you’re able to check out some beautiful habitat wherever your travels take you this Labor Day weekend!