Crassostrea virgnica, oyster, sea level rise, climate change, apalachicola, inundation, intertidal, gulf of mexico, estuary


Sea level rise and changing storm frequency and intensity resulting from climate change create tremendous amounts of uncertainty for coastal species. Intertidal species may be especially affected since they are dependent on daily inundation and exposure. The eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica is an economically and biologically important sessile intertidal species ranging from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Declines and changes in distribution of oyster populations has forced commercial harvesting to spread from subtidal to intertidal reefs. We investigated the potential responses of intertidal C. virginica to sea level rise, and the response of larval settlement to sedimentation which is likely to increase with higher water levels and storm frequency. Inundation was used as a proxy for sea level rise. We hypothesized four possible outcomes for intertidal oyster reefs as a result of changes in inundation due to sea level rise: (a) intertidal reefs become subtidal and remain in place, (b) intertidal reefs will be lost, (c) intertidal reefs migrate shoreward upslope and remain intertidal, and (d) intertidal reefs will grow in elevation and remain intertidal. To test the plausibility of these four outcomes, oyster ladders were placed at two sites within Apalachicola Bay, Florida, USA. Ladders supported oyster recruitment mats at five heights within the range of intertidal elevations. The bottom-most mat was placed near mean low tide, and the top mat near mean high tide to investigate the effect of tidal inundation time on C. virginica. Sediment traps were attached to ladders with openings at equal elevation to the oyster mats. Ladders were deployed for one year starting in June 2012, and again in June 2013, during peak oyster recruitment season. Monthly for six months during year one, sediment was collected from traps, dried to constant weight and weighed to obtain a monthly average for total sediment at each elevation. At the end of one year, oyster mats were collected from the field and examined for the following responses: live oyster density, mean oyster shell length of live oysters, mean oyster shell angle of growth relative to the benthos, and mean number of sessile competitors. We used AICc to identify the most plausible models using elevation, site, and year as independent variables. Oyster density peaked at intermediate inundation at both sites (maximum 1740 oysters per m2), it decreased slightly at the mean low tide, and sharply at the mean high tide. This response varied between years and sites. Mean oyster shell length peaked near mean low tide (6.7 cm), and decreased with increasing elevation. It varied between years and sites. Oyster shell angle of growth relative to the benthos showed a quadratic response for elevation; site but not year affected this response. Sessile competitor density also showed a quadratic response for elevation and varied between sites and years. Barnacles were the primary spatial competitor reaching densities of up to 28,328 barnacles per m2. Total monthly sedimentation peaked at the lowest elevations, and varied by site, with an order of magnitude difference between sites. Sediment increased with decreasing elevation. Outcomes a, c, and d were found to be viable results of sea level rise, ruling out complete loss of intertidal reefs. Outcome (a) would be associated with decrease in oyster density and increase in oyster length. Outcome (c) would require the laying of oyster cultch upslope and shoreward of current intertidal reefs, as well as the removal of any hard armoring or development. Outcome (d) remained possible, but is the least likely requiring a balance between sedimentation, oyster angle of growth, and recruitment. This should be further investigated. A laboratory experiment was designed to test relative impact of varying sediment grain sizes on settlement of C. virginica larvae. Previous studies showed that suspended solids resulted in decreased larval settlement when using mixed sediment grain sizes. Predicted storm levels and hurricane levels of total suspended solids were used in flow tanks. Sediment from the field experiment was sieved into seven size classes, the most common five of which were used in the experiment since they represented 98.8% of total mass. Flow tanks were designed and built that held 12 aged oyster shells, instant ocean saltwater, and sediment. Oyster larvae were added to the flow tanks and allowed one hour to settle on shells. Each run utilized one of the five size classes of sediment at either a high or low concentration. Following the one-hour settlement period, oyster shells were removed from the flow tank and settled larvae were counted under a dissecting microscope. Settlement was standardized by settlement area using Image J. AICc model selection was performed and the selected model included only grain size, but not concentration. A Tukey's post hoc test differentiated < 63 µm from 500 – 2000 µm, with the < 63 µm grain size having a negative effect on oyster larval settlement. This indicates that the smaller grain sizes of suspended solids are more detrimental to oyster larval settlement than larger grain sizes. The oyster ladder experiment will help resource managers predict and plan for oyster reef migration by cultch laying, and or associated changes in oyster density and shell length if shoreward reef growth is not allowed to occur. The laboratory experiment will help to predict the impacts of future storms on oyster larval recruitment. Together this information can help managers conserve as much remaining oyster habitat as possible by predicting future impacts of climate change on oysters.


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Graduation Date





Walters, Linda J.


Master of Science (M.S.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program









Release Date

May 2015

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)

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Biology Commons