The Peterson research collaborations address many aspects of marine conservation ecology from an interdisciplinary ecosystem context. Peterson’s research approaches involve experimental manipulation (including use of management actions as experiments), synthesis and analysis of large data bases, and conceptual development of the role of interdisciplinary processes in ecology. The current research projects span many issues of significance in conservation ecology and basic community ecology, including especially: coupled geological-biological research on how changing the sedimentary environment of sandy beaches affects habitat value and use; development and application of ecosystem-based approaches to oyster reef restoration; ecological and economic valuation of the ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs; development of new ecosystem-based understanding of direct and indirect ecotoxicological impacts of oil spills and petroleum hydrocarbon releases in the marine environment; assessing the consequences of estuarine eutrophication on habitat value and production of higher trophic levels; and developing an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management incorporating marine protected areas in an interdisciplinary context. Peterson not only conducts basic research in conservation ecology but he also works in environmental and fisheries management to bring rigorous science to the decision-making process and to facilitate quasi-experimental evaluation of adaptive management actions.

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Figure 3.19

• Application of disturbance theory and development of animal-sediment interactions to understand ecological impacts of and recovery from beach nourishment 

With increasing rates of sea-level rise and increasing storm climates under conditions of global warming, efforts to combat shoreline erosion are greatly intensifying. In collaboration with John Wells and other sedimentary geologists, Peterson’s group is using beach fill projects as experiments to evaluate how the intensity and duration of ecological impacts can be explained by effects of modifying the sedimentary environment. This research also involves tank mesocosms, designed to reproduce the physical environment of the swash zone of the beach. Effects on invertebrate prey and predatory shorebirds, surf-fishes, and crabs are being investigated in this project. See Figure 3.19.

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Figure 3.20

• Oyster reef services to the ecosystem and oyster restoration

One of the major causes of the decline in water quality and fish nursery habitats in the world’s estuaries can be traced to loss of filtration and of biogenic reef habitat historically provided by oysters. Peterson’s group conducts restorations of oyster reef habitat in ways that vary key aspects of the restoration so as to test experimentally how those factors influence restoration success. T his work also involves collaboration with natural resource economists to develop both ecological and economic valuation of oyster reef services to the ecosystem. The approach of quantifying ecosystem services of estuarine habitats allows habitat restoration to be used as quantitative mitigation to compensate for habitat losses. This research requires interdisciplinary collaboration among all four basic sciences because relating habitat structure to function requires inclusive understanding of ecosystem processes (See Figure 3.20).

• Larval dispersal in North Carolina estuaries: implications for fisheries management and marine reserve design

Members of three laboratories (Peterson, Moran, Marko) have been working on NSF-funded projects focused on the dispersal, population genetics, and larval biology of benthic marine invertebrates that exhibit evidence of recruitment limitation. Habitat forming (e.g., oysters) and commercially important species (e.g., oysters, bay scallops, hard clams) are of particular interest. Much of this work has been done either in collaboration and coordination with numerical modelling in Luettich and Werner’s labs and with an aquaculturist at a community college in Morehead City. Physical models have been used as a starting point to explain patterns of larval supply, which can be tested indirectly with both ecological experiments (Peterson) and population genetic analyses of recruitment (Marko). Direct analysis of dispersal distances is also underway (Moran), through the development of fluorescent markers (Fig. 3.23) that can be incorporated into calcified larval structures that are retained in settled juveniles. These direct methods will not only reveal dispersal ‘shadows’ of marine species with pelagic larvae, but physically marked individuals recovered in experiments in NC estuaries can then be used to test statistical methods of population genetic stock identification.

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