Jill Brown and Brian Boutin, graduate students at the University of Delaware's College of Marine Studies in Lewes, have received highly competitive fellowships from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. The fellowships provide each student with $60,000 over the next three years.
The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 26 areas representing different regions of the United States that are protected for long-term research, water-quality monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship. The reserve system is a partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the coastal states of the United States.
Brown, a doctoral candidate in oceanography, will use the fellowship funds to support her research on the sand tube builder worm, Sabellaria vulgaris. Throughout much of its range, from Cape Cod to Georgia, the worm lives singly or in small clusters. In the Delaware Bay, however, it settles in dense aggregations forming reef-like structures that are stable enough to walk on.
These reefs, some of which can be 50 feet long, are found in both intertidal and subtidal coastal areas of the bay. The reefs act to stabilize the shoreline by providing a natural buffer to wave action from the ocean and provide habitat for other marine organisms such as mud crabs, marine worms, and snails. In addition, the subtidal reefs are important to local fisheries because they are a valuable source of food.
Under the guidance of Doug Miller, associate professor of oceanography, Brown will study the population growth and subsequent rate of settlement of Sabellaria vulgaris in the St. Jones River Reserve in Dover, Delaware, where the worm has established a subtidal population. In addition, Brown will conduct research to determine how the mortality of the population is affected by below-average water temperatures that occur during the winter months.
"This information will enable managers at the St. Jones reserve to better understand their local populations so they can better support and protect the unique biological habitat that the sand tube builder worm provides," says Brown, who enrolled at the College of Marine Studies in 2002 after earning a bachelor's degree with honors in marine science and biology from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
"I enjoy the fact that I'm doing unique research that has the potential to contribute to a greater understanding of the community ecology in the bay, especially given the species' potential to mitigate shoreline erosion through reef building," says Brown.
Brian Boutin, currently a master's candidate in marine biology-biochemistry, will use his fellowship funds to evaluate the potential of the Delaware Bay and the various surrounding tidal creek systems -- including the St. Jones River Reserve -- to serve as weakfish nursery grounds. In addition, the fellowship will provide him with support to earn his doctoral degree.
Weakfish, Cynoscion regalis, is an economically and ecologically important fishery in the Mid-Atlantic region. The adult weakfish, which became Delaware's state fish in 1981, is named after its fragile mouth tissue that can easily be torn by fish hooks. They are found from Florida to Massachusetts, in shallow near-shore waters, usually over sandy bottoms.
During the spring and summer months, weakfish migrate inshore to breed and lay their eggs. Once hatched, the juvenile weakfish feed and grow to maturity in these inshore waters, with the Delaware Bay as well as the tidal tributaries that fringe the bay serving as major nursery areas.
Under the guidance of Tim Targett, professor of marine biology-biochemistry, Boutin will compare the density, growth, feeding, and production of young weakfish in the Delaware Bay and tidal tributaries to determine the relative importance of these habitats as weakfish nurseries.
"The results will help manage habitat for the benefit of the weakfish stock in and around Delaware Bay, by deciding which areas should be better protected," says Boutin, who enrolled at the College of Marine Studies in 2003 after earning a bachelor's degree in marine biology from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.
"Weakfish populations have been declining in recent years, so it is important to preserve areas where they grow the best," says Boutin, who looks forward to conducting research in the many beautiful areas of unpopulated Delaware. "This is the first time that anybody has conducted a true comparison of the nursery habitat quality of Delaware Bay versus its tidal tributaries."