A research team led by University of New Orleans biologist T. Erin Cox is the recipient of a $121,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to devise a plan on how to restore resilient seagrass beds in the northern Gulf of Mexico, with a particular focus on the role of genetic variation.
The funding comes from the NOAA RESTORE Science Program, which supports research that will inform future decision makers on how to better manage marine mammals, shorebirds, barrier islands and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico region.
All funded projects are designed to be an investment in the future of applied science and the sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.
The UNO-led project will focus on how to make restored seagrass beds in Pensacola Bay and Perdido Bay in Florida more resilient to climate stress. Seagrass beds are an important natural resource in the northern Gulf of Mexico, according to Cox. They indirectly support commercial fishing landings, protect shorelines from storm surge and land loss and capture carbon to buffer climate change, she said.
These benefits are threatened by disturbances such as hurricanes, storm runoff, dredging and global warming, which act to remove plants and lower water quality leading to declines in seagrass surface coverage and bed health. Managers of seagrass systems are therefore turning to restoration for mitigation, but the success of these efforts are often unpredictable.
Failure in restoration is often attributed to disturbances that are difficult to locally remove or reduce, Cox said.
“There is a need to increase the stress threshold of restored beds for long-term stability,” said Cox, an assistant professor of biological sciences. “One potential avenue, seldomly considered, is to assess the genetic diversity of existing beds and their resiliency to environmental stress."
Greater standing genetic diversity within a population is hypothesized to be beneficial for stability because it increases the probability that resistant genes are present when faced with new stressors, Cox said.
"The goal of this proposal is to reduce unknowns for restoration success by focusing on the benefits and inclusion of genetic variation," Cox said.
In addition to Cox, the project team includes Nicola Anthony, a professor of biological sciences and molecular ecologist at UNO; Anastasia Konefal, a Ph.D. student at UNO whose dissertation focuses on seagrass resiliency and genetic variation and partners from the Northern Gulf Institute and the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program.
The project team will additionally be advised by a panel of researchers and managers from the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Seagrass Community of Practice, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.