Faculty and Staff Accomplishments

Ag Illustrated
Dr. Elise Irwin, associate professor of fisheries and allied aquacultures (FAA), and FAA Ph.D. student Kathryn Mickett Kennedy recently presented an invited paper at the U.S. Institute for Conflict Resolution on a project they initiated in 2005 with Alabama Power to help stakeholder groups with conflicting environmental priorities collaborate on establishing goals and measures for river management in the R.L. Harris Reservoir.

Kathryn Mickett Kennedy   Research Associate III

 

 

Kathryn Mickett Kennedy

 Research Associate III

Oil Spill

By: Jacque Kochak – Village Editor

How the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf is affecting AU researchers, and how they hope to be able to help the area recover.

These oysters are being raised at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay. AU researchers are unsure of the impact of oil on their research, but they stand ready to help.

Drive through the bayou, and seafood delivery trucks are parked and not delivering. Oyster shuckers are not shucking, and packers are not packing. That’s the bleak picture painted by Dr. Bill Walton of the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, located on Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

Late last week, tar balls were washing ashore and the scent of oil hung heavy in the air. The forecast called for more oil to come ashore in the next few days.

“My heart goes out to the people who are out of work, so I’m not complaining,” Walton said.

Nevertheless, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that has gushed millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf since April has affected AU researchers–and given them more to research.

“A lot of people are looking at oyster mortality, how seafood will be contaminated, what dies. Those are immediate questions,” said Walton, who works largely with oyster, crab and shrimp fisheries.

“We’ll also be looking at next year’s crop,” he said. “It is a fairly straightforward measure when oysters are dying, so we want to measure the more subtle effects on growth. There will be a cascading effect on fisheries if it takes an additional year for oysters to get to marketable size.”

Walton said right now everyone is waiting to see just how bad the situation will be.

“Everybody is worried about the effects,” he said. “We’re still at the beginning stages. We had some folks down from Alaska talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and they said it is a sprint followed by a marathon. We’re in the sprint stage.”

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill spewed some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s remote Prince William Sound. The Deepwater Horizon spill has far surpassed that disaster.

The Shellfish Lab hatchery currently has 10 to 15 million oyster larvae growing in giant tanks with ocean water pumped in from the Gulf. They feed on phytoplankton and are raised until they are a quarter to three-quarters on an inch in size before they are taken out of the tanks.

“When we started smelling oil, we decided to shut down the pumps,” Walton said. “Now we’re re-circulating water in the tanks. I don’t expect the larvae would survive if oil got in.”

He said he has a graduate student working on her master’s degree, and this year she is supposed to write her thesis.

“She is studying the different ways that are used to raise highly marketable oysters,” Walton said. “She’s going ahead with that plan, but we don’t know what will happen in July or August. What we don’t want is for her to invest a month or two and find out the oysters she was going to work with have died.”

The student’s Plan B, he said, is to study the effects of the oil spill on oyster growth and survival along the Alabama coast.

“She’s doing what she was planning to do, and setting up a full research study in case,” Walton said. “It’s valuable research, but there are only so many hours in the day.”

The Shellfish Lab and AU’s Marine Fish Lab located at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope both have research programs going on. The Fish Lab has been studying red snapper and other fish for more than 20 years, and over the years has

tagged and tracked fish, analyzed their diet and built artificial reefs to study them, among other activities.

“We believe our fisheries studies are by far the most appropriate of any research effort or group in the entire Northern Gulf for addressing the possible effects of this recent oil spill,” said LaDon Swann, director. “We have the personnel, training, vessels and equipment for extensive faunal surveys from coastal waters to the deeper waters at the location of the present oil spill.”

Swann is also director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. Besides being a land grant university, Auburn is a sea grant institution, one of 32 in the country. The consortium brought in the Exxon Valdez veterans from Alaska as well as organizing community forums in Mobile and Biloxi.

The Sea Grant Consortium worked with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), a national network that focuses on disaster resources, to sponsor the forums.

“At the moment, EDEN is kind of working in the background to help the regional extension and sea grant offices build resources,” said Virginia Morgan, an AU professor who is EDEN’s Alabama point of contact.

They are working to develop information that is useful to the people on the ground as well as the people in communities.

“It’s kind of a slow-moving boat,” she said. “There is a lot of anticipation, but figuring out the real needs and where we fit is a slow process. It’s not real obvious right up front.”

One effort is to develop content for a Web site crammed with information about dealing with the crisis.

“If I were in Mobile County and wanted to go to Bayou la Batre to work with residents, I could use the resources I find on that Web site,” Morgan said. “We’re working to provide information educators can use face to face, and also ways individuals can help.”

Walton agreed with Morgan that it is difficult to get a handle on the scope of the problem yet.

“It’s a really strange time,” Walton said. “We don’t know how bad it will be, so we have to prepare for the worst. But that doesn’t mean we stop doing things we said we were going to do.”

The Dauphin Island Shellfish Lab was established with industry input to conduct practical research to foster high-quality shellfish production and protect shellfish resources in the Gulf. That’s what the lab will continue to do, Walton said.

“Auburn University was here along the coast working with fisheries before the oil spill, and we will be afterwards,” he said. “Now, some of the things we’ll be looking at are, ‘How do you recover?’ and “How do we get people back to work?’”

Along the Oil-Stricken Gulf Coast, Research Labs Watch and Worry

By: Scott Carlson – The Chronicle of Higher Education

June 03, 2010

Research

The west side of Dauphin Island, on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, has been slimed with oil. And Scott Rikard, a marine biologist and the manager of the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory, is grimly waiting for the oil to come around to the east side, where his research facility sits.

The other night, the laboratory shut down its pumping equipment, which provides seawater to its stocks of oyster larvae, because Mr. Rikard was afraid that the pipes and pumps, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, would be fouled by the approaching oil, which has been spewing for the past six weeks from a mangled well 150 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

“All indications are that we could expect it at any time,” Mr. Rikard says.

He is raising oyster larvae for researchers not only at Auburn, but also at Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University, and if he has to shut down the pipes for good, the animals will die when his three days’ worth of reserved water runs out.

“For lack of a better term, it’s sticky situation,” he says. “It’s real tragic. You can dwell on it or try to get through it.”

Mr. Rikard’s lab is one of a handful of university marine-research centers that will feel the impact of the nation’s worst oil spill in many ways. Their work—some of which has been under development for many years—is now threatened, as they cannot continue their experiments in the contaminated waters. Many of the research facilities have direct ties to the region’s fishing and shellfish industries, the future of which are in question.

“This will be the prominent issue that we deal with for several years to come,” says William E. Hawkins, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, part of the University of Southern Mississippi. He says he has not yet been able to assess how the catastrophe might affect current research.

Opportunity Amid the Ooze

But looking beyond the black ooze of the present, researchers also see opportunity. The unprecedented oil spill will lead to new questions about the biological impact, new lines of research in mitigation and recovery, and new challenges in helping to re-establish a fishing industry in the region. Mr. Hawkins says his scientists are already thinking of research that will respond to the slick—one topic that he mentions is assessing the effect on whale sharks, which frequent the spill area.

A facility that might embody the transition is the Grand Isle bivalve hatchery that is part of Louisiana State University’s Sea Grant Program. The facility itself has not been hit by oil, although the island has. The state has opened up freshwater-diversion structures in an attempt to push the oil out to sea, but that has reduced the salinity of water in the hatchery area—not good for the small oysters.

John Supan, an associate professor of shellfish research and director of the hatchery, says the facility had to move the oysters to a wildlife refuge to the west, which he hopes will not get hit by oil. More than $700,000 in research and other programs, many in the development stage, are now at risk, with the prospects for future research uncertain. “Development is harder than research,” he says. ”Once you do the research and see some promise, the hard part is getting it to go.” The hatchery was just about to start a multiyear program to teach oystermen how to produce seed oysters.

“We have lost our teachable moment,” he says. “You can’t talk to an oysterman right now about that.”

Oil-Eating Bacteria

But the hatchery is also looking at new kinds of projects in the wake of the spill. Ralph J. Portier, a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State, has developed a culture of a species of bacteria that eats oil. The hatchery may become a prime place to grow that bacteria, Mr. Supan says.

“Turns out this bacteria is a hell of a lot easier to grow than algae,” the oyster feedstock that his hatchery spends most of its time growing, he says. He and his colleagues have also revised recent grant applications to emphasize research in off-bottom oyster projects. Those projects may become more vital in the future, as the sea bottom will probably harbor oil toxins for years, he says.

Even researchers far from the spill are anticipating how their work will change. “For a while there, we were working under the complacency that the currents would not bring the oil into our waters,” says Leslie N. Sturmer, who studies clams as an extension agent for the University of Florida. She is now considering moving some of her projects from Cedar Key, about two hours north of Tampa, Fla., to the east coast of the state.

The major question for some of these researchers is the recovery time, both environmental and economic. Mr. Rikard, of the Auburn shellfish laboratory, is particularly worried about how the spill’s impact on the fishing industry will spiral out to other sectors— people who work in restaurants and tourism, or selling ice or gasoline to fisherman, and so on.

The fishermen and the research facilities have both weathered their share of disasters in the past, particularly hurricanes. “The thing about a hurricane is that you can get down here the next day and start recovering,” Mr. Rikard says. “With this, you don’t know when it’s going to hit or how long it’s going to take to recover.”

Auburn’s Bass Sports Club honored for contributions to university

wireeagle.auburn.edu – AUBURN – Auburn University President and Mrs. Jay Gogue recently honored the university’s Bass Sports Club at the President’s Home in recognition of the club’s contributions to the Auburn University Foundation.

Since January 2009 the club has presented $44,500 to Auburn from funds garnered in the National Guard FLW College Fishing Series. Teams that finish in the top five of each event are awarded funds which are distributed to the foundation for general scholarships and to the club for expenses.

“We are very proud of the club members and their dedication to being student-athletes who represent Auburn so well,” President Gogue said. “The club is among the top organizations at Auburn that truly give back to the university and the community.”

Auburn University President and Mrs. Jay Gogue recently honored the university’s Bass Sports Club in recognition of the club’s contributions to the Auburn University Foundation. Pictured are (front row, left to right) Jordan Lee, Shaye Baker, Eugene Buckley, Auburn President and Mrs. Jay Gogue, Sam Rochell, Kevin Tignor, J.T. Murphy, Paul Davis, associate advisor Darrel High; (second row, left to right) advisor Jann Swaim, Clay Messer, Richard Peek, Nick Palerino, Caleb Rodgers, Chris Seals, Jake McNeal; (back row, left to right) Jonathan Adams, Kiron Browning, James Clayton, Robert Melvin, Heather Bell, Shane Powell, Andrew Wendt, Dennis Parker and Daniel Holland.

The club, founded in 2007, participates in collegiate fishing tournaments across the Southeast in events sponsored by organizations such as FLW Outdoors and BASS.

FLW Outdoors Magazine editors in January named Auburn the number two club in the nation based on a survey of all anglers who competed in the 2009 National Guard FLW College Fishing Series. The survey looked at each club and school; fishing lifestyles; tournament opportunities; club activities; and other factors.

“We are very grateful to the tournament sponsors and to Auburn for providing the opportunity to participate in these events,” said Jann Swaim, club advisor. “The tournaments provide great experiences for our students and at the same time generate funds for Auburn. We don’t focus on winning prize money, though. Our goals are to represent Auburn to the highest standard and to have pride in being a part of Auburn.”

The club, which has 30 members, sends three, two-person teams to tournaments. The duo of Shaye Baker and Dennis Parker recently won third place in the inaugural National Guard FLW College Fishing National Championship, while the team of Caleb Rogers and Richard Peek took sixth place. Also earning high-ranked finishes this past year were Sam Rochelle, J.T. Murphy and Jordan Lee.

Dedication to the community and sport fishing can be seen in the club’s efforts beyond the national tournaments. The club also has hosted local Boy Scouts to help them earn merit badges in fishing.

“We are very active as a club, but are very strict and tell them they must keep their grades up and they can only fish on weekends prior to a tournament,” Swaim said. “They are very upstanding young men and women who make us very proud.”

Swaim says membership is open to Auburn students of any major. More information is available at http://www.auburn.edu/bass.

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