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New survey finds invasive species fouling up mid-Atlantic waters

The survey team conduct lab work, including looking through microscopes
April Blakeslee
East Carolina University
The survey team conduct lab work for the biofouling survey. Some organisms are big enough to see with the naked eye, but some require microscopes.

East Carolina University participated in the first survey of its kind to identify specific marine organisms across the mid-Atlantic region.

Throughout June, a team of 18 biologists and students from the eastern U.S. spent 15-hour days traveling to marinas from Virginia to New Jersey, some battling seasickness while scraping the sides of floating docks. The survey team looked for “biofouling species” — creatures, such as barnacles, that attach to hard surfaces, like boats or docks.

People lay down on a floating dock to scrap the sides for biofouling samples
April Blakeslee
East Carolina University
The survey team scraped docks to collect biofouling samples

At nine of the 10 surveyed locations, more non-native biofouling species were found than native ones, including new records of the invasive sea squirt Distaplia bermudensis.

ECU biologist April Blakeslee helped design the survey. She said this trend is largely due to climate change.

“There's a lot of species that are moving from the tropics and the subtropics up into more temperate regions,” Blakelsee said. “So, the mid-Atlantic is receiving a lot of those organisms just because it's a lot warmer in both the summers and the winters. And, so it's allowing species to actually move and establish in those new locations.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average sea surface temperature of the mid-Atlantic region has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

A biofouling sample: green and brown organisms that look like moss and seaweed sit on a dock
Jim Carlton
Williams-Mystic program
Biofouling sample from Chincoteague, VA

Since biofouling organisms can attach to boats, they can spread to these warming waters even more easily.

“Now you have a whole new population of that species that didn't used to exist in that location,” Blakeslee said. “It's disturbing from the perspective that they're there. They're reproducing. There's so many boats that are moving in and out of these marinas. So, the likelihood that we're going to continue to have spread of these organisms in new locations is really high.”

Blakeslee said the abundance of these non-native species can not only hurt the general ecology of an area, but they can also cause economic harm, so it is important to clean boats and docks.

In addition to being an eyesore, by attaching to boats and docks, biofouling organisms can cause drag or degradation. Blakeslee said they can also weigh down or smother aquaculture cages, killing the commercially-viable species inside.

Blakeslee said she hopes this first survey can act as a baseline to understand biofouling trends in the mid-Atlantic region, and her goal is to conduct a new survey in the region every two to three years.

Participants of the 2023 inaugural mid-Atlantic Marine Bioinvasions Rapid Assessment Survey. Eighteen scientists and students stand in two rows in front of water.
Courtesy of April Blakeslee
East Carolina University
Participants of the 2023 inaugural mid-Atlantic Marine Bioinvasions Rapid Assessment Survey. Front row, from left to right: El Hartshorn, Samantha Parsons, Rob Aguilar, Judy Pederson, Megan McCuller, Jim Carlton, April Blakeslee, Amy Fowler, Sarah Greenberg, Sara Labbe. Back row, left to right: Danielle Moloney, Drew Davinack, Clara Benadon, Niels Hobbs, Kristen Larson, Carter Stancil, Miranda Andersen, Carol Thornber

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the survey team of 18 biologists and students were from multiple locations in the eastern United States, and not all were from North Carolina.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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