Preliminary Research on the Potential Effects of Gulf Stream Energy Turbines on Rates of Productivity and Nutrient Cycling in Pelagic Sargassum Communities

Monday, 15 December 2014
Lindsay L Dubbs and Michael Piehler, UNC Coastal Studies Institute, Wanchese, NC, United States
Sargassum is an important and protected genus of pelagic macroalgae that serves as habitat for numerous bacteria, fungi, invertebrates, fish, and sea turtles. Sargassum and its associated communities are also a significant source of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus to the otherwise deficient oligotrophic pelagic waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The densest concentration of pelagic Sargassum, primarily comprised of Sargassum natans and S. fluitans, is found in the North Atlantic Central Gyre of the Sargasso Sea, but large quantities are also found in the waters of the continental shelf of the southeastern United States and especially the western edge of the Florida Current/Gulf Stream, including off the coast of North Carolina. This western edge of the Gulf Stream off the North Carolina coast is also of interest for renewable current energy exploration and development because of the constant flow of the Gulf Stream current in close proximity to land at this location, which presents a potential source of substantial baseload power for the east coast of the United States.

Marine hydrokinetic turbines placed in the Gulf Stream will likely be placed at depths of 30 to 50 m below the surface of the water, far removed from buoyant Sargassum that floats at the surface of the water and associated fish assemblages that extend to a depth of 3 m. Nonetheless, Gulf Stream turbines may influence the functional roles of Sargassum and its epibionts because the wakes generated by turbines will change turbulence conditions in the water column, which are in turn likely to affect nutrient cycling and productivity.

Our research begins to examine how alterations of the Sargassum environment presented by increased turbulence will affect the productivity, nitrogen fixation, and organic matter fluxes of Sargassum macroalgae and their associated epibiotic communities. We have conducted field and laboratory experiments aimed at quantifying the influence of increased turbulence on the productivity and nutrient cycling roles that Sargassum plays in the pelagic marine environment. Methodologies and preliminary results of our ongoing research will be presented.