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Support for Integrated Ecosystem Assessments of NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS): Assessment of Ecological Condition and Stressor Impacts in Subtidal Waters of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve

Author(s): Balthis, L.; J. Hyland; C. Cooksey; E. Wirth; M. Fulton; J. Moore; D. Hurley

NCCOS Center: CCEHBR (http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/about/centers/ccehbr)

Publication Type: NOAA Technical Memoranda

Journal Title: NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 150

Date of Publication: 2012

Reference Information: 79 pages

Keywords: Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve; ecosystem health; ecological condition; benthic health; sediment quality; fish tissue contaminants; human health; water-column nutrients; chlorophyll

Abstract: A study was conducted in June 2009 to assess the current status of ecological condition and potential human-health risks throughout subtidal estuarine waters of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR) along the coast of Georgia. Samples were collected for multiple indicators of ecosystem condition, including water quality (dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, pH, nutrients and chlorophyll, suspended solids, fecal coliform bacteria and coliphages), sediment quality (granulometry, organic matter content, chemical contaminant concentrations), biological condition (diversity and abundance of benthic fauna, fish tissue contaminant levels and pathologies), and human dimensions (fish-tissue contaminant levels relative to human-health consumption limits, various aesthetic properties). Use of a probabilistic sampling design facilitated the calculation of statistics to estimate the spatial extent of the Reserve classified according to various categories (i.e., Good, Fair, Poor) of ecological condition relative to established thresholds of these indicators, where available. Overall, the majority of subtidal habitat in the SINERR appeared to be healthy, with over half (56.7 %) of the Reserve area having water quality, sediment quality, and benthic biological condition indicators rated in the healthy to intermediate range of corresponding guideline thresholds. None of the stations sampled had one or more indicators in all three categories rated as poor/degraded. While these results are encouraging, it should be noted that one or more indicators were rated as poor/degraded in at least one of the three categories over 40 % of the Reserve study area, represented by 12 of the 30 stations sampled. Although measures of fish tissue chemical contamination were not included in any of the above estimates, a number of trace metals, pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found at low yet detectable levels in some fish at stations where fish were caught. Levels of mercury and total PCBs in some fish specimens fell within EPA guideline values considered safe, given a consumption rate of no more than four fish meals per month. Moreover, PCB congener profiles in sediments and fish in the SINERR exhibit a relative abundance of higher-chlorinated homologs which are uniquely characteristic of Aroclor 1268. It has been well-documented that sediments and fish in the creeks and marshes near the LCP Chemicals Superfund site, near Brunswick, Georgia, also display this congener pattern associated with Aroclor 1268, a highly chlorinated mixture of PCBs used extensively at a chlor-alkali plant that was in operation at the LCP site from 1955-1994. This report provides results suggesting that the protected habitats lying within the boundaries of the SINERR may be experiencing the effects of a legacy of chemical contamination at a site over 40km away. These effects, as well as other potential stressors asso

Availability: Len.Balthis@noaa.gov

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