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Guest post by Kerry Irish and Alan Joyner, UNC-CH Institute of Marine Sciences
FerryMon utilizes NCDOT ferries to monitor the health of the waters they traverse
During hurricane season, storms can dramatically alter ecosystems. This was evident in 2006 when Tropical Storm Ernesto arrived, leaving in its wake a change in chlorophyll levels for the Neuse River and Pamlico Estuary. Increased levels of chlorophyll mean more algae, which can have negative impacts. This particular case led to a massive fish kill.
The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System is North Carolina’s most important aquatic resource. It is the nation’s second largest estuary, supporting an enormous percentage of the southeastern U.S. fishery, and is a mainstay of North Carolina’s coastal economy.
This estuarine system is essential for fish habitat, tourism, recreation and residential values. In order to maintain these elements, it is vital to keep watch on the water quality of this system. That’s no easy task. Pressures on the estuary are immense and range from natural events such as hurricanes, agricultural inputs, development and the persistent threat of sea-level rise.
Hans Paerl and research technician, Karen Rossignol retrieve water samples to take back to the lab for analysis
“The Albemarle-Pamlico Sound is the largest body of water in the U.S. that we know the least about,” says Dr. Hans Paerl, Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences. “Ferries in North Carolina are the first on and last off the water, and as such give us a remarkable, cost-effective way to monitor water quality in this huge system.”
Hence, the FerryMon program was born.
The team running FerryMon - short for Ferry-based Monitoring of Surface Water Quality in North Carolina - have equipped three North Carolina ferry routes with state-of-the-art water quality monitoring equipment. These instruments are continually sampling the water, unbeknownst to the riders above deck. Capitalizing on technological advances in chemical sensing, staff members in Dr. Paerl’s lab can download real-time data on conditions in the system to analyze without ever leaving their lab. If a specific problem is detected, an in-line water sampler can be triggered to collect samples for more detailed laboratory analyses. This information is then immediately shared with state and federal water quality and fisheries habitat agencies.
The locations of the FerryMon ferry routes (A), the onboard monitoring equipment (B), and an example of the data collected by the ferries (C).
The cause of the 2006 fish kill would have gone unresolved if not for the information provided by the FerryMon program. No one else had any estuarine water quality data to help understand why there was such a massive fish kill.
“Tropical Storm Ernesto demonstrated the sensitivity of the estuary to rapid changes in nutrients. A system that has a nutrient overload can see devastating effects,” remarked Paerl. “FerryMon provided a long-term data set for us to compare what was happening in the system before and after. This is critical information to answer complex ecological questions such as ‘why was there a fish kill?’”
FerryMon decreases costs, time and effort, and yields faster results as compared with many traditional water quality monitoring programs. As such, FerryMon has become a model for “platform of opportunity” water quality sampling around the nation (and other National Estuary Programs), with scientists making use of vessels already plying the waters to help them take water samples.
Ferry at sunset
FerryMon is in its 13th year and will continue to provide important insights into the health of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System, thanks to funding for the next two years from the North Carolina Coastal Recreational Fishing License Grants Program.
Next time you take a ride on one of North Carolina’s ferries, don’t forget, you are helping monitor the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System.