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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nature Conservancy funds URI marine research

URI, Nature Conservancy celebrate 10 years of grants for marine science research

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. –Three graduate students at the University of Rhode Island have received grants from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to fund marine conservation research, the most recent of 16 grant recipients over the last 10 years.

M. Conor McManus, a student at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, was awarded a grant to use larval habitat models to evaluate the suitability of spawning areas for Atlantic mackerel along the Northeast continental shelf. Anna Gerber-Williams, a student in the URI Department of Natural Resources Sciences, will use her funding to evaluate the effects of various erosion control strategies on the invertebrates living in the sediments of the Narrow River. And Melanie Gerate in the Department of Biological Sciences, received a second year of funding for her study of the effects of anthropogenic nutrient pollution on Caribbean mangroves.

Since 2006, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Initiative and the URI Coastal Institute have provided up to $12,000 in funding to at least two graduate students each year. Nearly $200,000 has been awarded for student research since the program began.

“The students’ research has helped advance coastal and marine conservation science and policy on a variety of topics and in multiple geographic locations where TNC and URI have a shared interest,” said Lynne Hale, senior marine conservation fellow with TNC’s Global Marine Initiative based at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. “The students have developed relevant and insightful research questions and conducted important work on many ecosystems, from mangrove forests and coral reefs to salt marshes, coastal ponds and pelagic (open ocean) environments.”

Funded projects have included modeling the population of quahogs in Narragansett Bay to assess potential management strategies; an examination of the causes of the decline in winter flounder numbers in southern New England; establishing guidelines for restoring oysters to Rhode Island’s coastal ponds; and assessing the effects of sea level rise on coastal wetlands in Charlestown and Westerly.

“Providing support for these students is not only a source for significant and needed research but also a vital investment in the next generation of coastal scientists,” said Judith Swift, director of the URI Coastal Institute.

A Milton, Mass. resident, McManus said his research will identify critical areas for mackerel spawning and the environmental conditions that are suitable for spawning. “This work will aid us in understanding where and when mackerel spawn, what environment is critical for initiating spawning and larval survival, and how spawning may change with future changes in climate,” he said.

Gerber-Williams, who grew up in Vermont and now lives in South Kingstown, says her research will provide insight into the detrimental effects of erosion on coastal habitats. “Our estuaries are disappearing as we try to find ways to control or diminish erosion,” she said. “I am excited to observe what is occurring within the infaunal communities throughout the Narrow River, which has very little non-eroded shoreline remaining.”

Garate’s research examines whether mangroves are “a carbon sink” that can offset climate change even when they are heavily affected by human nutrient pollution. The pollution may change nutrient and carbon cycling in the ecosystem and cause mangroves to emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

“This is vitally important, as results from this study will provide information that can be used to evaluate responses of valuable coastal wetlands to chronic anthropogenic nutrient pollution and create an incentive for municipalities to lower their nutrient emissions to waterways,” said Garate, a native of Chile. 

The students say that the funding from The Nature Conservancy is vital to the success of their research.

“The Nature Conservancy grant is critical for me to fully develop this project to its full potential by covering travel costs and allowing me to create opportunities for other students by hiring a research assistant in Puerto Rico,” said Garate. “Without the support from TNC, I would not be able to successfully pursue this project, which is so critical for climate mitigation strategies and local outreach.”

“The funding I received from TNC has allowed me, as a young scientist, to solely focus on my research and provide me the opportunity to be independently responsible for managing a project,” added Gerber-Williams. “Not many researchers my age are given such an opportunity, and I am extremely thankful for their support.”

Pictured above
URI graduate student Conor McManus collects data for his study of mackerel spawning habitat. (Photo courtesy of Conor McManus)

URI graduate student Anna Gerber-Williams works at the edge of the Narrow River to see how erosion control strategies are affecting life in the sediments. (Photo courtesy of Anna Gerber-Williams)