Marine Ecology at the Coastal Virginia Economy

A conversation with Derek Aday, dean of the School of Marine Science at William & Mary and recently appointed director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science

by Beth Hester

Derek Aday is director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and dean of William & Mary’s School of Marine Science. A renowned scholar and researcher in the fields of marine science and ecology, he was appointed to this lead position in September 2021. In a recent interview, we asked Aday for his perspectives on how our region’s marine ecosystem and economy are connected, and to highlight significant VIMS programs and initiatives around climate change, the economy, fisheries and coastal resilience.

COVA BIZ: The health of our region’s economy is inextricably linked to the health of our marine ecosystems. What three issues would you target as most pressing as they relate to our coastal economy?

Derek Aday: It’s important to acknowledge that there are different coastal regions, each with different characteristics, economies and needs. But generally speaking, there are three broad areas of importance:
Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture: Seafood products are of significant importance to the Commonwealth in general, and to our coastal economy specifically. Ensuring that we have safe, healthy and sustainable wild seafood products and efficient and effective aquaculture is central to the region’s economy and is a focus of our work at VIMS. This requires providing translational science for the management of critical habitat like seagrasses for blue crabs, nursery areas for valuable finfishes and functioning working waterfronts for shellfish aquaculture. It also requires long-term scientific monitoring of fish and invertebrate population sizes and health, which has been a specialty of VIMS for decades. It’s essential that we continue to train the next generation of scientists and aquaculture practitioners to continue this important work.

Water quality and quantity: The quantity and quality of the water in our coastal systems is vital to the health of our people, ecosystems and economy. Aquifer levels in coastal regions are dropping due to an increased demand for access to fresh and brackish water extractions by municipalities and from industry: manufacturing, power generation and agriculture. These withdrawals are outpacing aquifer replenishment, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is working with permitted users to reduce their withdrawals.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Photos courtesy of Virginia Institute of Marine Science

In terms of water quality, we’re experiencing stronger storms with larger rainfall totals more frequently than in the past. These storms can be tropical in origin, temperate Nor’easters or simply prolonged, intensive rain events with increased coastal flooding from both seawater and rainfall. The resulting runoff from within the Bay watershed transports very high loads of sediment, nutrients and chemical and microbial contaminants into the Bay which negatively impacts quality.

The extreme flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in eastern North Carolina is a recent example of such an event. While media attention has focused on human infrastructure damage caused by such storms, the ecological impacts of this particular event on the Pamlico Sound (as well as other coastal bays and estuaries in North Carolina) are likely to be widespread and persistent for many years. In the Chesapeake Bay, Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 brought a record amount of rainfall to the Bay watershed. Extraordinarily high sediment inputs and reduced salinity from this rain caused changes to plant and animal populations in the Bay, some of which continue to this day.

All of this necessitates careful observation and management, which is done by VIMS and associated partners like the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. We regularly monitor the various contaminants that affect water quality, the lives of species that inhabit coastal systems and the people who depend upon them. We have a long-standing and effective program to assess and monitor harmful algal blooms and wide varieties of other aquatic contaminants. Climate change and rising water temperatures in the Bay and associated tributaries are connected to many of the issues I’ve outlined.

Climate change and sea-level rise: Climate change and sea-level rise will strongly influence our coastal economy because of their impacts on ecosystems and built infrastructure. Coastal flooding, driven by sea-level rise and increases in storm frequency and intensity, will impact homes, septic systems, ports, transportation and logistics, businesses, military bases and more. We’re doing work on these issues at VIMS, including ecosystem modeling, understanding how climate change will affect ecosystems and species, as well as the economic impact those changes will have. Our research into how these threats influence man-made environments will play an important role in the development of coastal resilience best practices to help manage and mitigate change.

COVA BIZ: At VIMS and the School of Marine Science, how is an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving helping to expand research around the issues you just identified?

Derek Aday: An interdisciplinary approach to science is central to what we do at VIMS as we work to understand and manage complex coastal ecosystems.

Our work brings together biologists, chemists, social scientists, policy makers, business and land owners, and those whose lives depend upon coastal ecosystems and natural resources to tackle the most pressing scientific questions and provide solutions and guidance to decision makers. All of the problems previously identified require multidisciplinary expertise to address effectively, and our work within VIMS and through partnerships with other agencies, universities and organizations ensures that we bring the right people to the table. It’s why, I think, we’ve been so successful addressing major challenges in coastal and marine systems over the last 80+ years.

COVA BIZ: Discuss the multi-institutional partnerships that are helping to advance VIMS’ mission. Are any new partners coming on board?

Derek Aday: We have a long history of working with other agencies and institutions to provide the best available science to the Commonwealth and beyond. Some examples include long-term, investigator-level partnerships with scientists at our home institution, William & Mary, and with regional partners such as the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, Hampton University and Norfolk State University. We also have well-established and effective partnerships with similarly focused institutions such as the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. We look forward to growing and expanding those partnerships to ensure that we’re developing comprehensive, region-wide solutions to vexing coastal and marine system challenges. A few examples of such partnerships are:
• The Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency is a partnership between VIMS, the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at the William & Mary Law School and Old Dominion University. That center addresses a wide range of issues related to coastal flooding and works closely with local governments and industry to reduce impacts of flooding.
• VIMS is working with Norfolk State University and the Elizabeth River Project to monitor the ecological health of the Elizabeth River and to guide restoration efforts.
• Our work in shellfish aquaculture has a long history of working with state agencies (Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Health) and industry. This ongoing work has led to Virginia leading the nation in the aquaculture production of clam and [being] second in the nation in oyster production.

COVA BIZ: Research at VIMS is multi-faceted. Are there any interesting new projects or initiatives associated with the coastal economy that you plan to implement or oversee at VIMS?

Derek Aday: We always have interesting new projects and initiatives in the works! A few examples include: initiatives focused on the implications of new offshore wind development projects to fish, fisheries and the surrounding ecosystem. The development of a highly integrated next-generation model for water quality recently adopted by the EPA’s Bay Program and a National Weather Service project around coastal flooding and rainfall on the East Coast and regions in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re engaged in innovative work on coastal resilience through our Center for Coastal Resources Management and Virginia Sea Grant programs. Finally, we have a brand-new, world class shellfish aquaculture facility, the Acuff Center for Aquaculture, which was just dedicated in April.

COVA BIZ: Anything else you’d like to relate?

Derek Aday: This is an exciting time at VIMS. I believe that our research, advisory service work, and education and training programs will be needed more in the years ahead than ever before. We have tremendously talented faculty, staff and students who are addressing pressing ecological and environmental challenges in coastal ecosystems, and we have the connections with agencies and decision-makers necessary to ensure that our science is impactful and influential in the Commonwealth and beyond.

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