“We’re essentially bringing the ocean into a laboratory where scientists are able to address local, regional and global issues. The facilities and equipment can emulate nearly any marine condition on the planet except for vastness and depth.”                               Ed Baker, seawater facility manager

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Bay campus marine facility boosts research capacity

What do you need to know about marine life?

The impact ocean acidification has on lobsters? Can marine ecosystems and wild fish populations be better preserved with fishmeal replacement in aquaculture fish feeds? How and why do harmful phytoplankton blooms occur?

What are nutrient levels, driven by sewage and fertilizer run-off, doing to Narragansett Bay? Can squid shut down their oxygen consumption and control their metabolism?

grass mesocosms
Grass mescosoms

Responses to these and myriad other questions are sought and found within the low-slung buildings and specialty laboratories that sit bayside on the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay Campus.

Together, they form the Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR Marine Science Research Facility (MSRF), valued and supported by both the URI Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) and College of Environment and Life Sciences (CELS).

“Think of how much biomass is in the ocean,” says Lucie Maranda, MSRF supervisor and marine research scientist at the GSO. “How healthy is this biomass? Is it affected by climate change, by pollution? And if so, how is it affected? We need to understand the resilience of marine populations, and how the environment responds to different conditions.”

By measuring the response of the ocean and its inhabitants, says Maranda, we can learn and verify, for example, that pollution does matter; if we put contaminants in the water, we can see the cause and effect, that before we had species ‘x,’ and now we have species ‘z.’ We can compare a pristine environment with one that is polluted, and we can demonstrate that problems exist.

The pursuit of answers brings researchers from URI, the EPSCoR community and the state, to the literal end of South Ferry Road, where the asphalt meets Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound. The view alone is worth the drive, not to mention the incredible science that takes place in the buildings there.

“There is magic when cresting the hill at the South Ferry Church and seeing the condition of the Bay — angry and covered with white caps, foreboding with icy sea smoke or resting flat and glassy calm,” reflects Ed Baker, seawater facility manager. “I look for it each morning.”

The flowing seawater wet lab space, environmental chambers, and array of analytical equipment combine to provide unique opportunities for marine scientists and students. With the R/V Endeavor and other research vessels able to dock at the GSO pier, scientists can collect organisms at sea and bring them to the MSRF where marine conditions are mimicked or slightly changed for experiments.

Samples from the experiments then can be analyzed with a host of specialized equipment such as microscopes, a flow cytometer, and a nutrient analyzer. Samples also can be processed conveniently for later DNA sequencing. The aim is to offer one-stop-shopping to all types of scientists.

Maranda doesn’t have to look far or wide to sum up the importance of having these capabilities close at hand. She cites a long-term GSO study that began in the 1950s, taking weekly water quality samples to determine bay conditions and phytoplankton and zooplankton abundance related to such indicators as temperature, salinity and a host of nutrients. Nutrient measurements once conducted by hand are done today with the MSRF nutrient analyzer, generating more data faster.

“This long-term study allowed us to document an increase in the bay’s water temperature,” Maranda says. “It is how we found out there are changes to nutrients in the bay. If we had not done the analysis, we would not know.”

‘Sea squirts to seaweed’

Baker oversees the activity that takes place throughout the four-building complex and hurricane-hardened pumphouse. Along with 7,000 square feet of wet lab space, there also are seawater intake pipes, eel grass mesocosms, a large laminar flow tank, specialized respirometer tanks, pathology and transgenics labs, filters, heaters, chillers, alarms, and back-up generators.

flowing seawater
Flowing seawater

With RI NSF EPSCoR funding and support, the seawater facility has seen major renovations and updates to accommodate what Baker describes as a remarkable diversity of research — benthic soil chemistry, macro algae ecology and invasive species, marine degradation of newly developed plastics, functional morphology of sharks, effects of neuropeptides on lobster behavior, sea star disease, tunicate development, effects of ocean acidification, effect of rising sea level on marsh grass survival, and novel anti-fouling surfaces, among many other enterprises and the periodic verification that sea-going instruments work properly.

“We’re essentially bringing the ocean into a laboratory where scientists are able to address local, regional and global issues,” he says. “The facilities and equipment can emulate nearly any marine condition on the planet except for vastness and depth.”

For example, one researcher is attempting to establish an ice cap in an environmental chamber to better understand the dynamics of microbial communities residing under the vast polar ice caps.

The MSRF also has been the springboard for the expanding oyster aquaculture industry here in Rhode Island and along the eastern seaboard. Investigation into oyster growth and their pathogens continues today.

Baker says the MSRF has a long history of providing for scientists and students studying bacteria, phytoplankton, zooplankton, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, finfish, and sharks. From sea squirts to seaweed — essentially all manners of sea life — the MSRF has been a conduit for graduate students and scientific papers for decades, a great asset to the university and the state of Rhode Island.

The MSRF makes equipment available for use both in the labs and out in the field or off the shores of Rhode Island. The facility also accommodates visiting scientists and has undertaken contract science, and at times conducts replicate scientific studies and hosts research activities sponsored by other universities.

And, the MSRF draws in the next generation with an outreach program, hosting groups of young people through their school, organization or camp, to expose them to marine science education and careers.

Education, research & training

Biologist Rebeka Rand Merson, associate professor, Rhode Island College (RIC), says the MSRF is an indispensible asset. Recently awarded a Rhode Island Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) collaborative grant, Merson focuses on evolution, development, and effects of environmental stress in cartilaginous fishes (sharks, skates, and rays) with specific aims to determine sensitivity of these animals to chemical pollutants present in Narragansett Bay.

“We anticipate that our results will contribute significantly to our understanding of current stressors and emerging issues related to climate change,” Merson explains, noting that the research animals she studies are too big and sensitive to maintain at RIC and they require flowing seawater to survive and reproduce.

The MSRF offers world-class physical facilities, she says, and Baker is highly knowledgeable about the operations of the facility: “Most importantly, he has expertise in maintaining healthy environments for marine organisms, including the group of animals I work with. His advice on day-to-day care of the animals and considerations for planning upcoming experiments is invaluable.”

Merson says access to the MSRF undoubtedly has played a role in her successful grant awards; reviewers recognize that investigators have the research capacity to complete their proposed studies.

laminar flow tank
Laminar flow tank

Second-year Ph.D. student Erin McLean, URI biological sciences, with specialization in integrative and evolutionary biology, works in the lab of Associate Professor Brad Seibel. She says her research work with juvenile lobsters, six months old and about an inch long, would not be possible without the MSRF.

“As we put more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, the CO2 also goes into the ocean,” McLean explains. “Once there, it forms a weak acid that is lowering the pH of our oceans, making them more acidic.”

Numerous studies have shown that higher acidity levels make it harder for animals to deposit their shells, reproduce, and survive. McLean wants to find out how the lobsters fare in acidic conditions.

She says her work involves exposing juvenile lobsters to higher acidity and measuring their growth during a four-month period. She chose juvenile lobsters because they are a key component of the lobster fishery pipeline, an enormously important fishery in New England and the Canadian Maritimes.

“It’s so important to have a facility like this in Rhode Island, because without it, innovative projects like mine wouldn’t be able to happen. Having an idea for a project is fantastic until you realize you need a ton of money and a ton of space to make it happen.” Erin McLean, URI doctoral student

McLean’s experiment, which Baker describes as ingenious, introduces different levels of CO2 to flowing seawater in three tanks. Each has 24 lobsters, all getting the same seawater from the bay, the same food conditions, and the same light conditions.

The only difference among the tanks is the pH of the water, which is controlled by the CO2, thereby mimicking different atmospheric concentrations. By early February, McLean had spent about four months on the experiment, measuring the lobsters every few days to gauge growth.

She says preliminary results suggest that the lobsters in the lowest pH tank (the most acidic) are not growing nearly as well as the lobsters in the tank that represents ambient conditions. This spells bad news for the industry — if lobsters take a longer time to grow to legal size, fishery profits will decline.

The next big breakthrough

“My research couldn’t be done without the MSRF,” says McLean. “My tanks require a constant supply of seawater, and without the pumps and filters and supply lines at the aquarium building, the experiment wouldn’t work.”

At the same time, McLean adds, having tanks available for her use at the MSRF meant a smaller budget, which, given the country’s science funding climate figured critically in green lighting the experiment.

“It’s so important to have a facility like this in Rhode Island, because without it, innovative projects like mine wouldn’t be able to happen,” McLean says. “Having an idea for a project is fantastic until you realize you need a ton of money and a ton of space to make it happen.”

With the facilities and infrastructure in place and accessible, young scientists like McLean can skip the step of purchasing tanks and finding a reliable seawater supply.

“Once I knew it was possible to get space in the MSRF,” she says, “I was able to more fully develop my idea — how do lobsters grow under ocean acidification conditions — into a full blown study that will likely be important for many people in the field, as well as fishermen and policymakers.”

Maranda says these capabilities for research open up new avenues for collaboration among scientists, within and beyond Rhode Island’s borders as well as between disciplines, to address issues in basic as well as applied ecological and physiological science with potential implications in environmental management.

Baker also points to the dedicated study of real world marine questions and the dynamic, diverse research that takes place at the MSRF on a daily basis, its quiet presence and supportive role often unnoticed: “Its real strength has been serving science and students steadfastly for decades.”

By Amy Dunkle | from the Spring 2015 issue of The Current