Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Research Publications: UM-SG-RS-2004-11


Modeling seagrass density and distribution in response to changes in turbidity stemming from bivalve filtration and seagrass sediment stabilization.




Newell, RIE; Koch, EW


Estuaries 27(5):793-806




In many areas of the North American mid-Atlantic coast, seagrass beds are either in decline or have disappeared due, in part, to high turbidity that reduces the light reaching the plant surface. Because of this reduction in the areal extent of seagrass beds there has been a concomitant diminishment in dampening of water movement (waves and currents) and sediment stabilization. Due to ongoing declines in stocks of suspension-feeding eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) in the same region, their feeding activity, which normally serves to improve water clarity, has been sharply reduced. We developed and parameterized a simple model to calculate how changes in the balance between sediment sources (wave-induced resuspension) and sinks (bivalve filtration, sedimentation within seagrass beds),regulate turbidity. Changes in turbidity were used to predict the light available for seagrass photosynthesis and the amount of carbon available for shoot growth. We parameterized this model using published observations and data colleted specifically for this purpose. The model predicted that when sediments were resuspended, the presence of even quite modest levels of eastern oysters (25 g dry tissue weight m-2) distributed uniformly throughout the modeled domain, reduced suspended sediment concentrations by nearly an order of magnitude. This increased water clarity, the depth to which seagrasses were predicted to grow. Because hard clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) had a much lower weight-specific filtration rate than eastern oysters; their influence on reducing turbidity was much less than oysters. Seagrasses, once established with sufficiendy high densities (>1,000 shoots m-2), damped waves, thereby reducing sediment resuspension and improving light conditions. This stabilizing effect was minor compared to the influence of uniformly distributed eastern oysters on water clarity. Our model predicted that restoration of eastern oysters has the potential to reduce turbidity in shallow estuaries, such as Chesapeake Bay, and facilitate ongoing efforts to restore seagrasses. This model included several simplifying assumptions, including that oysters were uniformly distributed rather than aggregated into offshore reefs and that oyster feces were not resuspended.

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