Date of Graduation

5-2016

Level of Access

Open Access Thesis

Department or Program

Biology

First Advisor

John Lichter

Abstract

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) is a perennial seagrass that provides many vital ecosystem services including stabilizing sediments, maintaining water clarity, and providing complex habitat in the intertidal and shallow subtidal coastline. Historically, Maine supported dense eelgrass beds in shallow waters surrounding islands and along the coastal mainland. However, in 2012, high population densities of European green crabs (Carcinus maenas), which physically disturb and remove eelgrass as they forage, were correlated with widespread eelgrass declines. Over 55% of the area of eelgrass in Casco Bay was lost, mainly between 2012 and 2014. Eelgrass typically grows in low-oxygen sediments that produce a chemically reducing environment. Sulfate-reducing bacteria in these reduced sediments produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxin that can intrude into eelgrass tissues and impair the plants’ ability to photosynthesize. When eelgrass is not present, sulfide can build up in the pore-water. When eelgrass is present, it can oxygenate the sediments through its roots, thereby preventing the intrusion and buildup of toxic hydrogen sulfide. However, if the substrate is de-vegetated, oxygen levels drop as sedimentary organic matter is decomposed, and the accumulation of sulfides to harmful concentrations in the pore-water may make recolonization of eelgrass difficult or perhaps impossible even in the absence of green crabs. In an effort to monitor characteristics of Casco Bay eelgrass beds and determine spatially where eelgrass may be more likely to recover, four Casco Bay sites with varying degrees of vegetation loss were sampled in 2015 for pore-water sulfide concentration, sediment carbon and nitrogen content, and sediment grain size analysis. Measurements of sulfide concentrations showed correlations with the timing of eelgrass loss, such that vegetated sites had low pore-water sulfide concentrations and sites that had been de-vegetated for longer periods of time had high sulfide concentrations. Carbon and nitrogen content in the sediment was higher at de-vegetated sites, likely due to a higher percentage of finer sediments at those locations. Coarser sediments were more highly vegetated than finer sediments, perhaps displaying a preference of green crabs to forage in finer sediments. Catastrophic loss of eelgrass in Casco Bay has likely led to differences in sulfide levels, carbon and nitrogen content in the sediment, and grain size distribution, depending on degree of vegetation. Eelgrass restoration in Casco Bay will likely be limited by high pore-water sulfide concentrations.

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