Medium-term monitoring reveals effects of El Niño Southern Oscillation cycles on oyster reef restoration

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Jennifer Beseres Pollack, Terence Palmer , Abby Williams

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Human activities and regional-scale climate variability are driving changes in the ecology of coastal and marine ecosystems worldwide. Ecological restoration has emerged as a best management practice to combat habitat degradation and restore lost ecological functions. However, relatively short project monitoring timeframes have limited our understanding of the effects of interannually climate cycles on water quality and restoration dynamics. We collected measurements on a 23 ha oyster reef constructed in the Gulf of Mexico for five years after reef construction to determine significant correlations between regional climate signals and local environmental and faunal dynamics. The potential role of climate variability on local salinity patterns (from changes in precipitation and evaporation) and faunal dynamics was investigated using the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI), a measure of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ONI was correlated with salinity that occurred two to five months later. Positive ONI (El Niño) periods were characterized by reductions in salinity, increases in oyster recruitment and density, and reductions in resident motile fauna density and species richness. Negative ONI (La Niña) periods had higher and less variable salinities, and higher areal coverage of restoration substrates by large oysters. ENSO-driven salinity reductions in the second year after reef construction coincided with a shift in resident motile faunal community composition that was maintained despite  a second strong salinity reduction in year 5. In order to support the use of habitat restoration as a conservation and management tool, results indicate it is important to expand the temporal resolution of monitoring timeframes to at least five years so that resource managers and restoration practitioners can better understand how both short-term environmental variability and longer-term climate cycles can affect the outcomes of restoration actions.

Resource Type:
Conference Presentation, SER2021

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