Biology Coastal Management Ecology Undergraduate Research

SURFO SPECIAL: The world is your oyster: Collecting data on Matunuck Oyster Farm

Each summer, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) hosts undergraduate students from all over the country to participate in oceanographic research. These Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFOs) have not only been working with GSO scientists, but they have spent part of their time learning how to communicate this science to the public. Read on to find out what they have been up to, and why they everyone should be as excited as they are about their work.

Sandy Rech is a senior at the University of Kansas, majoring in interdisciplinary computing with a biology focus and minoring in mathematics. This summer, she worked with Dr. Christopher Roman and David Casagrande collecting and analyzing data on the environmental factors within Matunuck Oyster Farm. Read on below to learn about her work!

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Aerial view of Matunuck Oyster Farm. Photo courtesy: Matunuck Oyster Farm.

Opening Up:

Figure 2. Satellite view of Potter Pond. Photo courtesy: Salt Ponds Coalition

The Matunuck Oyster Bar is a local favorite and great place to enjoy a fresh seafood dinner with a beautiful waterfront view. The Matunuck Oyster Farm, located within Potter Pond in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, is an active aquaculture site where oysters are grown and harvested for the local oyster bar (Figure 2.) Oysters act as a sort of “biological filter,” removing harmful material like nitrogen and sediment to contribute to the overall health of its ecosystem (Shpigel & Blaylock, 2003.) Many environmental factors such as tidal flux, current speed and direction, water depth, and temperature affect the productivity of the oyster farm. By collecting and analyzing data on these environmental factors, the conditions of different areas within the farm can be observed and examined to possibly enhance overall wellness. However, many challenges arise when interpreting these data. For example, Potter Pond has a high spatial variability, meaning that a measurement taken from one area of the farm may be completely different than another measurement taken within close proximity, making patterns in the data difficult to identify. How do we resolve this? By collecting more data on the different environmental conditions!


Harvesting the Data:

Figure 3. Onset Water Level. Image credit: ONSET
Figure 4. Lowell Tilt Current Meter. Image credit: Lowell Instruments LLC

The instruments used to collect data were the Onset Water Level Loggers and Lowell Tilt Current Meters (TCMs). The water level logger records water depth, as a pressure measurement and temperature (Figure 3.) The TCM pivots in the direction the current is moving at a certain time and records current direction in degrees, speed in cm/s, and temperature in ˚C (Figure 4.) Thus far, the data collected from these instruments at Potter Pond were analyzed in four large chunks or rounds, occurring periodically from October 2018 through July 2019. But, data collection doesn’t stop there! More rounds of data will be collected in the future for more accurate data interpretation.

The Pearl:

In the first round of data collection, two long TCMs were placed on the east and west ends of the farm, and a third short meter was placed at the east end to investigate data changes on different sides of the farm. Due to the shallowness of Potter Pond, the long meters were placed in a hole which unfortunately filled in overnight, leading to inviable current direction and speed data. On the bright side, all temperature data were still viable!

The results from this experiment show that the east side of the farm is slightly warmer than the west side in the winter. Why does this happen? There is a new water source that flows in on the east side of the farm, constantly mixing the water so the temperature on east side never gets as cold as the west side.

In the second to fourth rounds of data collection, a small surface buoy was attached to a long TCM to observe how wind affected the current direction and speed, measured by a nearby short TCM. The results reveal that the correlation between wind and current is not very strong, leading to the conclusion that wind is only one of many environmental factors that affect current direction. Creating different plots uncovers identifiable patterns within the farm, making them the pearls of our data. 

Aw Shucks the Conclusion:

Sandy doing field work at Matunuck Oyster Farm. Photo by: Chris Roman

By placing tilt current meters and water level loggers along an oyster farm like Matunuck Oyster farm, current and depth data can be interpreted to assess spatially variability and overall quality of the farm. In order to get a good census of how environmental conditions affect the farm, many rounds of data will need to be collected. However, once this abundance of data is collected, distinguishable patterns within the farm will prevail. Analyzing data collected on oyster farms all over the world can answer the never ending questions of how do different environmental conditions affect farm productivity. So the next time you’re enjoying a nice oyster dinner, think about all of the challenges and environmental conditions that these little guys have to overcome to filter our waters.


Additional Reference:

Shpigel, M., & Blaylock, R. A. (2003, October 02). The Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, as a biological filter for a marine fish aquaculture pond.

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