UNF Research Project Works on Shoreline Restoration; Project Operating on $4,000 Seed Grant

By Stepzinski, Teresa | The Florida Times Union, October 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

UNF Research Project Works on Shoreline Restoration; Project Operating on $4,000 Seed Grant


Stepzinski, Teresa, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Teresa Stepzinski

ST. AUGUSTINE | Spindly looking yet sturdy stalks of Spartina, common to coastal salt marshes, might be a natural way to combat algae blooms, as well as reduce coastal erosion in Northeast Florida.

Splattered with mud and soaked in sweat amid the late morning heat and humidity, Kelly Smith, a University of North Florida associate professor of biology, lead a team of student volunteers as they carefully transplanted small clusters of Spartina - commonly called Smooth Cordgrass - at a small patch on the beach of the Tolomato River at Usina Boat Ramp near Vilano/North Beach in St. Johns County.

Smith, a marine biologist - focusing in salt marsh and estuarine ecology, and wetland and estuarine restoration - is spearheading a UNF research project exploring ways to reduce aglae blooms and run-off issues by balancing nutrients, and harvesting plants as habitat for coastal organisms within local ponds.

It's not a large-scale project, but Smith's research is applied science tying two different environmental aspects together.

"One is trying to take up nutrients from retention ponds that receive a lot of nutients from the surrounding land. The problem with retention ponds is a lot of those nutrients end up moving through groundwater to the river where they can create algae blooms," Smith said.

Smith said if they grow those plants out in nutrient-rich waters, then once the plants are at a larger, more robust state, they possibly can be used for shoreline restoration.

"Where we try to create good fish habitat and reduce erosion rate," Smith said of the shoreline restoration aspect of the project.

Describing herself as primarily a fish ecologist, Smith said she was inspired to launch the research project because she's been concerned by human impacts on fish habitat. Much of her prior work has involved salt marsh fishes.

"And yet, we're losing a lot of salt marsh habitat. We're also seeing poorer water quality, which is another problem for many fishes." Smith said.

The project includes collecting measurements on water quality and plant health from a series of Spartina floating treatment islands Smith installed in retention ponds on the UNF campus.

Earlier in the week, they harvested the plants, which plants had been deployed in floating treatment wetlands - large retangular trays - in the retention ponds to soak up potentially damaging nutrients from the water.

"Now, we're going to try to use them for growing and capturing sediment at an eroding site," Smith said of their work Saturday at the boat ramp. Hurricane Irma ripped up the previous planting at the site, so they're trying again, she said.

The transplanted Spartina will be important fish habitat. Fish routinely use the marsh grass for refuge, to forage on the organisms that hide around the roots.

"So it's a structured habitat. A bare beach doesn't provide a lot of options for juvenile fish, but things like Spartina and oysters are all very good fish habitat," Smith said. Bait fish such as mud minnows live in intertidal areas around the marsh grass.

The area along the Tolomato area would have had similar vegetation prior to development. So the transplanted Spartina will fit right in the ecosystem, she said.

"What happens is a lot of important species like spotted seatrout, red drum and other really key recreational fish come into these habitats to feed on those little guys. So this is a feeding habitat," Smith said.

The project, she said, also is intended to prompt students to think about multiple aspects. It addresses shoreline loss, habitat, nutrients, water quality, plant ecology and coastal ecology. …

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