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Local researchers monitor the health of estuarine ecosystem

Left - Elizabeth Pinnix, Right - Byron Toothman - both researchers who work out of UNCW's Center for Marine Science
Rachel Keith
Left - Elizabeth Pinnix, Right - Byron Toothman - both researchers who work out of UNCW's Center for Marine Science

After the passing of Hurricane Ian, researchers are paying close attention to water quality metrics off the coast.

Byron Toothman is a researcher for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. He constantly monitors things like salinity, pH, and temperature.

If some of these levels get too high, then that can be cause for concern. For example, after Hurricane Florence, he tracked the emergence of a harmful bacteria, vibrio vulnificus.

“And so when you've got a huge storm event that brings a certain window of salinity inland where people can come into contact with it, and in warm temperatures, it will begin to grow in places where people would not normally pick up a vibrio infection,” Toothman said.

This pathogen can have deadly consequences.

“There was a person who lived north of Wilmington, who was cleaning up storm debris following Florence and scratched his leg and got a vibrio infection that was devastating. And the study that I provided data for found that there is a marked increase in vibrio infections, people seeking treatment and victims following a major storm event like Florence,” he said.

Toothman also monitors the health of the marsh in the face of sea level rise.

“As the waters rise, we want to know, is the marsh going to keep up? Is it going to drown? Is it going to be able to migrate back up upland in time to save itself, as the sea level begins to increase or continues to increase?” Toothman asked.

He hopes from the data he collects, every 15-minutes, all year, for the National Estuarine Research Reserve system will help inform decision-makers, researchers, and educators.

“Can we develop here? What happens if we don't allow the marsh to migrate back here? The marsh itself is an extremely valuable natural resource. It's been demonstrated time and time again to dampen wave action; it absorbs some of the extra nutrients that come off with stormwater, it performs a lot of valuable functions and so we can't afford to lose it,” he said.

And as a result of increased development and impervious surfaces around these marine habitats, there are marked increases in nutrients or runoff being diverted into the waterways. This process is known as eutrophication.

As this happens, according to Toothman, “It will promote the growth of different organisms. And one of the changes, there is a shift away from microalgae, which is an important part of the base of the food web. It's very nutritious food for small organisms, and we're shifting away with increasing nutrients to larger macroalgae, which are a lot less nutritious.”

Toothman said he’s grateful for Masonboro Island Reserve, as researchers like him can study how the environment acts in an uninhabited 8-mile, 5,600 acre-island.

He said this estuary surrounding Masonboro, and most estuary ecosystems for that matter, “an incredibly large portion of our commercially and recreationally valuable species come and reproduce in this environment. And it’s not just commercially and recreationally valuable fishing species, but these are essential components of food webs in the aquatic habitat,” Toothman said.

Below is an example of the types of water quality metrics Toothman follows. This data was recorded shortly after the passing of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR