Science News

Underwater Video Mapping Reveals Changes in Massachusetts Benthic Habitats

By William A. Hubbard; Marine Ecologist, Coastal America Foundation and Francis J. Veale; Chairman, Massachusetts Maritime Academy; Marine Safety and Environmental Protection.

Ecosystems will shift their functional components in response to stressors. A new balance of dominants and transients will evolve in response to physical impacts such as climate change, overharvesting of predators and eutrophication. This may be the case in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts according to recent research by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA).

 

Since 2014 MMA has been conducting video mapping of the benthic habitats in Buzzards Bay. The recent discovery of extensive seafloor areas covered with Crepidula fornicata, the common slipper shell, led MMA scientists to begin mapping the spatial dimensions of these interesting shell reef habitats. The investigations will assist future coastal management and while simultaneously training the next generation of scientists onboard their research fleet.

“In 1955 nineteen benthic stations were examined in Buzzards Bay and there were no Crepidula fornicata present (journal article in press; Marine Ecology). Now we are mapping living slipper shell reefs that cover over 100 acres in several different areas. We are examining this ecological change, which may have many contributing factors. Whatever the cause of the habitat change, these reefs seem to be productive benthic habitat, especially for juvenile fish,” said Bill Hubbard; Marine Ecologist. High definition underwater video transects, remotely operated vehicle video and sediment grabs are all contributing to the ecological knowledge of this estuarine environment.

Crepidula fornicata, the common slipper shell, is a unique gastropod snail since it is a filter feeder and mostly stays sessile, stacked in clusters or “curls.” This stacking allows the males and females to be in close approximation and builds the reef structure that can cover the ocean floor for acres. One reef, documented by this research, covers more than 140 acres. Many coves and embayments have shorelines covered by the empty shells after a storm. Their proliferation may be due to warmer water temperatures in winter allowing them a better chance of survival. There are certainly more nitrates and phosphates in the waters allowing a rich bloom of plankton to feed these filter feeders. Or the overharvesting, temperature shifts and other exclusions of predators may be the cause. Most likely there is a relationship among all these factors. The reefs do filter the water, absorb nitrates and fix carbon into the slipper shell itself. Video and benthic Van Veen sampling indicate the reefs are excellent juvenile fish forage and shelter habitat. Biodiversity studies are continuing.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy research is being conducted with the marine sciences group of the Coastal America Foundation and other Massachusetts institutions. Coastal America Foundation is a non-profit organization that funds environmental education, aquatic habitat restoration and conducts marine science studies. The location of MMA campus on Buzzards Bay and the significant support of its Marine Operations Department, allows scientists and students easy access to the areas of investigation.

“This project allows the communities surrounding Buzzards Bay to benefit from the extensive skills and capabilities of the MMA team to improve environmental management of the Bay resources,” said Massachusetts Maritime Academy Rear Admiral Francis X. McDonald. “It is a continuing opportunity to establish a baseline ecological characterization of Buzzards Bay for a long term series of comparisons.”

More than 30 students have been engaged in the benthic mapping, assisting field operations with MMA and other organization’s researchers.

“This field research into the ecology of Buzzards Bay allows us to place MMA students on the deck of research vessels working alongside marine scientists to collect data and then onshore to process the results. It trains them as well as enthuses them toward scientific careers,” explained Francis Veale; Department Chairman, Marine Safety and Environmental Protection. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy Research Vessel Liberty with high definition drop camera/structure scan recorders and the Coastal America Foundation Research Vessel Teleost with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) video camera have been the primary field assets.

“The video and screen captures have the latitude/longitude embedded onscreen. This technology allows us to map the exact position of the shell reefs and produce precise GIS data maps,” explains Mike Elliott, GIS Environmental Analyst. Over the winter months the field videos and geospatially referenced habitat classifications will be entered into GIS maps. These will be available to support the Massachusetts Ocean Resource Information System of the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office.

The Coastal America Foundation is collecting donations for MMA student stipends to participate in the field research. You can donate at coastalamericafoundation.org/donateonline.html. If you would like to support or obtain more information about the benthic mapping in Buzzards Bay, please contact Bill Hubbard at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Video and more information available here.

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