Seston Removal by Natural and Constructed Intertidal Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) Reefs: A Comparison with Previous Laboratory Studies, and the Value of in situ Methods
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An important ecological role ascribed to oysters is the transfer of materials from the water column to the benthos as they feed on suspended particles (seston). This ecosystem service has been often touted as a major reason for many oyster restoration efforts, but empirical characterization and quantification of seston removal rates in the field have been lacking. Changes in chlorophyll a (chl a) concentrations in the water column were measured in May 2005 and June 2006 in South Carolina using in situ fluorometry and laboratory analysis of pumped water samples taken upstream and downstream as water flowed over natural and constructed intertidal oyster reefs. Both methods gave similar results overall, but with wide variability within individual reef datasets. In situ fluorometer data logged at 10 to 30-s intervals for up to 1.3 h over eight different reefs (three natural and five constructed) showed total removal (or uptake) expressed as % removal of chl a ranging from −9.8% to 27.9%, with a mean of 12.9%. Our data indicate that restored shellfish reefs should provide water-quality improvements soon after construction, and the overall impact is probably determined by the size and density of the resident filter feeder populations relative to water flow characteristics over the reef. The measured population-level chl a removal was converted to mean individual clearance rates to allow comparison with previous laboratory studies. Although direct comparisons could not be made due to the small size of oysters on the study reefs (mean shell height, 36.1 mm), our calculated rates (mean, 1.21 L h−1) were similar to published laboratory measured rates for oysters of this size. However, the wide variability in measured removal by the oyster reefs suggests that individual oyster feeding rates in nature may be much more variable than in the laboratory. The proliferation of ecosystem-level models that simulate the impacts of bivalves on water quality based only on laboratory-feeding measurements underscores the importance of further research aimed at determining ecologically realistic feeding rates for oysters in the field. Because in situ methods provide many replicate measurements quickly, they represent a potentially powerful tool for quantifying the effects of oyster reefs, including all suspension-feeding taxa present, on water quality.