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Shelby Ziegler is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in Dr. Joel Fodrie’s lab at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. Before coming to UNC, Shelby worked as a research technician with Dr. Emmett Duffy at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science studying community ecology in seagrass beds. Shelby is interested in biodiversity, community ecology and food web dynamics across habitat boundaries. To learn more check out her website:

How do different types of salt marshes affect fish nursery habitats?

Salt marshes are valuable habitats for many reasons. They provide sediment stabilization, carbon sequestration, and are key nursery habitats for many estuarine species. This means many of the fish you eat on your dinner plate use marshes for protection and feeding grounds as juveniles.  The North Carolina Coastal Federation, a local non-profit organization coined the term “No Wetlands, No Seafood” to emphasize the fact marshes are vital to marine life.  However, I believe not all marshes are created equal. In human populations, where you grow up can have a huge effect on your adult life. For example, someone that grows up in an area of poor air quality may have breathing problems as an adult. This could also be true for fish in differing quality marsh habitats? A small marsh island may have a very different value to juvenile fishes compared to a large continuous mainland marsh: affecting the types of fish using the marsh, the size of these fish and their condition– a measurement of how “fatty” a fish is and a proxy for habitat quality.

Marsh Islands in Back Sound off Beaufort NC. UNC ENEC-IMSMy advisor and I recently received a 2-year grant from the NC Division of Marine FisheriesCoastal Recreational Fish Licensing (CRFL) Program* to figure out how marsh islands and mainland marshes of varying sizes affect fish abundance, diversity, size and condition. Marsh islands are islands in the estuary separated from any mainland, comprised of marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, and much of the surface is flooded at high tide and exposed at low tide. Marsh islands can be used as a proxy for fragmentation to better understand how fish populations may change if mainland marshes are broken apart and become more similar to isolated islands. This summer, I will begin research to conduct fish and invertebrate surveys across 3 sizes of marsh islands and 2 types of mainland marshes (thick and thin).  We will conduct a tagging study to determine if juvenile fish found at one location return to the same site through time. We will also run lipid analysis in the lab to determine the condition or “fattiness” of the fish to better understand habitat quality of these different marshes.UNC ENEC-IMS PhD Student Shelby Ziegler doing field work in the salt marsh. Photo by Julie Geyer
This research has implications for conservation and management of primary nursery habitats found in North Carolina. By better understanding how different types of marsh habitat influence juvenile fish species, we can better determine which habitats areas to conserve and restore to enhance the diversity and abundance of local fish populations.

*The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries-CRFL Program funds this research. This program is designed to provide vital research about NC fish populations and to protect and better understand how recreationally important species that inhabit North Carolina waters. Every person who buys a coastal recreational fish license in NC contributes to this research program.

UNC ENEC-IMS PhD Student Shelby Ziegler using seine net. Photo by Mary Lide Parker

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