The Effect of Oyster Reef Morphology on Particulate Transfer in a North Carolina Tidal Creek

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Mary Grace Lemon1, Martin Posey2, Michael Mallin3 and Troy Alphin2, (1)Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, United States, (2)University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Biology and Marine Biology, Wilmington, NC, United States, (3)University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Marine Science, Wilmington, NC, United States
The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is a vital ecosystem engineer species, providing a number of ecosystem services that structure and maintain estuarine environments through the construction of large, hard-bottom reef complexes. Through suspension feeding, oysters clear the water column of particulates, leading to decreased suspended material and enhanced benthic pelagic coupling. Past field studies have indicated the potential importance of the physical reef structure in regulating the transfer of particulate material in the seston. In order to directly assess the existence of the physical reef effect, multiple field experiments were performed in a small tidal creek estuary along the south eastern coast of North Carolina. Comparison of clearance rates derived from two different in situ methods, one accounting for the physical structure of the oyster reef in addition to oyster filtration and one looking at oyster filtration alone, indicate that the reef structure may increase the amount of particulate removal performed by the reef by more than 4 times the removal performed by oyster filtration alone. A defaunation experiment was performed by eliminating the live component of the oyster reef and comparing particulate transfer of this defaunated transect to that of an adjacent faunated transect. The defaunated transect had reduced but not significantly lower material removal when compared to the faunated transect prior to defaunation. Results from short and long term sediment collection and flow velocity measurements indicate that the physical effect of oyster reefs is strong over short temporal scales (days) but is much smaller when evaluated over longer time periods (months). Generally, large silt and small sand sized material is permanently removed from the seston due to the interaction of oyster reef structure and tidal flows, however the transfer of small and medium sized silt grains is only slowed down by the presence of large reef complexes. This effect has important ecological implications for downstream water quality and must be accounted for when modeling water quality improvements performed by oysters.