Local Citizens and Island University Researchers Work Together to Identify Cause of Baffin Bay Water Quality Changes

Published: March 10, 2017

Local Citizens and Island University Researchers Work Together to Identify Cause of Baffin Bay Water Quality Changes

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – In 2012, concerned citizens approached Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researchers about water quality problems in Baffin Bay. As a team, they navigated the rocky waters to determine what was causing a change in the Bay’s water quality. Now, they have the answers. In a recent study titled “Exceptionally high organic nitrogen concentrations in a semi-arid South Texas estuary susceptible to brown tide blooms,” the results are showing important findings on changes in the water quality and the overall health of the bay. Dr. Michael Wetz, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, his research team, and citizen scientists have collected samples monthly throughout Baffin Bay for nearly four years to determine water quality conditions and drivers of water quality change.

Baffin Bay—a Laguna Madre inlet that’s roughly a 50-mile drive from Corpus Christi— has been deeply affected by brown tide since 1990. Brown tide is a type of algae that spells trouble for seagrass or fisheries and hinders fishing. For example, brown tide can prevent light from reaching seagrass, causing significant amounts to die, and studies suggest it may be deadly to fish larvae. Anglers have also noted that fishing tends to suffer during brown tide blooms. Until recently, scientists and resource managers did not know why brown tide has become incredibly persistent in Baffin Bay.

The key find from this study is that Baffin Bay’s dissolved nitrogen levels are highest of virtually all bay systems on the Texas coast, with most of this nitrogen in organic form. In other systems worldwide affected by brown tide algae, it has been suggested that high levels of organic nitrogen can favor the growth of the brown tide. It also appears that the organic nitrogen levels in Baffin Bay have increased over time.

“We strongly believe the very high dissolved organic nitrogen levels observed in Baffin Bay may hold the key to brown tide persistence in the system,” said Wetz.

Baffin Bay also provides the environment for the brown tide algae to prosper over healthy algae.

“The high and increasing organic nitrogen concentrations, coupled with water temperature and salinity increases, are likely to promote additional brown tide blooms in Baffin Bay,” explained Wetz, who noted that all three variables favor brown tide species.

The current challenge is determining the best way to manage and lessen the harmful water quality changes observed in Baffin Bay.

“We are optimistic the various stakeholders in the watershed, such as business owners, land owners, fishermen and those with agricultural interests will come together to find solutions,” said Wetz. “With funding opportunities now available such as through the RESTORE Act, we have a real opportunity to demonstrate that we can take care of our natural resources without harming business and economic interest in the area.”

These findings could not have been possible without the citizen scientists who initially reached out and worked with the researchers. These volunteers come from a spectrum of different interests and backgrounds—commercial fisherman, recreational fishermen, a fishing guide and bee owners. Due to the rocky nature of Baffin Bay and it often being out of cellphone service, it can prove to be a tricky system to navigate. Thankfully, these volunteers had years of experience and were able to assist the researchers by providing their boats and time.

“It really has to be a community driven effort. It’s going to be the citizens who are going take the lead for getting the solutions to the problems we identified,” said Wetz.

This study could not have been accomplished without the following community members taking action: Jim Atkins, Frank Baumann, Jerry Bjork, Jan Cannamore, Al Gordon, Michael Henry, Carl Hooker, Thomas Mullenix, Scott Murray, David Rowsey, Ron Ryon, Jim Scoggins, Charles Sellers, Diane Sellers, John Sutton and Paul Wimberly.

Due to the success of this study, future research in Wetz’s lab will be conducted on additional Texas bays, creating a “report card” on water quality.

For more in-depth information on the Baffin Bay study, see Dr. Wetz’s online article at sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272771417301208.