Headline for Featured Item #1 Dr. Lee Smee Featured in Online Academic Journal for His Discovery of Mechanism That Can Reduce Worldwide Oyster Decline - Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
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Dr. Lee Smee Featured in Online Academic Journal for His Discovery of Mechanism That Can Reduce Worldwide Oyster Decline

November 18, 2013

Lee Smee 1

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Dr. Lee Smee, Associate Professor in the Department of Life Sciences, has been featured in Dug Dug, an online academic journal, for his research titled “Intraspecific Variation Influences Natural Settlement of Eastern Oysters” published in Oecologia, a top ecology journal.

Smee and a team of researchers have conducted the first study that suggests that preserving variety of eastern oysters is important in preventing worldwide oyster decline and maintaining a viable fishery.

The ultimate goal of his work with oyster reefs is to determine the best ways to protect and restore these communities. In this study, Smee and his research team sought to determine why larval oysters select where to settle and grow. The full Dug Dug article can be viewed here.

Worldwide, there has been an 85 percent decline in oyster reefs due to overharvesting and poor water quality. The decline could have a devastating economic impact on oyster fisheries, which are worth $11 million in Texas and $120 million in the United States annually. The increasing decline could also have a negative effect on other species of commercial and recreational importance that depend on oyster reefs for habitat, including red drum, spotted sea trout, and blue crabs.

“Oyster reefs also store carbon, serve as food for many species, filter water to improve water quality, provide storm protection, and reduce coastal erosion,” said Smee.

The finding is the first to show that variety among members of a single species is important to successful population growth in a sexually-reproducing, habitat-forming species.

The group collected living oysters and oyster shells from three bay systems in Texas: San Antonio Bay, Matagorda Bay, and Carancahua Bay and performed laboratory and field studies.

“We provided larval oysters with a choice between reefs containing dead oyster shells and one with living oysters in nature,” said Smee. “We also provided larval oysters a choice between reefs with a greater variety of oyster types versus those with few types.”

By increasing the variety of oysters present, more larval oysters were induced to attach and grow. Attachment for oysters is permanent; therefore, the decision of attachment location is critical.

Over the three-year study, laboratory and field work indicated that oyster larvae respond to chemical cues from adult oysters and prefer to attach to reefs near adult oysters rather than reefs with dead oyster shells. He added that having a greater variety of oysters likely produces a variety of “smells,” and a larval oyster is more likely to find a home that is attractive to it. 

“Because of intensive harvesting, much of the variation in oysters is being or has been lost, which in turn makes reefs less attractive places for larval oysters to attach and may speed up the demise of these reefs,” Smee said.

Smee says that by maintaining a higher level of diversity (more variety), oyster reefs may be more likely to thrive and grow by being more attractive to larval oysters. He explains that possible solutions in maintaining oyster diversity would be to reduce harvesting and improve water quality.

The research was funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Research Development Fund.  The study was conducted by Dr. Smee, along with colleague Dr. R. Deborah Overath, doctoral student Keith Johnson, and James Sanchez, an undergraduate student researcher at the time of the study.

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