Skip to main content
North Carolina has an expansive estuarine system with many critical habitats for young fishes and crabs. However, estuaries are also among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet. The loss of habitats, such as oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds, has impacted the nursery-related functions of our estuaries, which is a major economic and environmental concern in North Carolina. Doctoral student Danielle Keller led three efforts to better understand links among habitat quality, availability and fishery production.

Specifically, she monitored species density and foraging behavior to determine how fauna respond to changes in habitat availability. Keller determined which species of fishes and crabs appear to benefit most from increasing the amount of structurally complex habitat within the estuary. In turn, these findings provide insight into how declines in estuarine habitats may have reduced the fishery production of North Carolina’s coastal ecosystems.

Keller also led an effort to restore oyster reefs along different types of salt marsh shorelines, and found that the shoreline with the lowest wind and wave energy supported higher adult oyster densities.

Lastly, Keller monitored the density and movement of fishes in different types of seagrass beds, finding a strong decline in fish densities coinciding with a seasonal decline in eelgrass cover, even as another species, shoalgrass, increased in cover. As eelgrass finds its southern range limit in North Carolina and experiences seasonal thermal stress, these data highlight how climate change may impact fishery production in our estuaries.

Taken collectively, state managers and the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve will be able to leverage Keller’s findings to better design restoration projects to maximize fisheries production and shoreline protection for coastal citizens.