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Impact Grant Awardees

Impact Grant Awardees

Supporting a vibrant and productive Texas Gulf Coast

The University of Texas Marine Science Institute has a new initiative to create the Texas Gulf Coast Resarch Center. The Center will conduct research, collaborate with partners and design programming to inform and address long and short term challenges facing the Texas coast. To help acheive these goal, two internal competitions were announced in early September, 2023 to address both near-term and long-term challenges facing the Texas Gulf Coast. The following are the 2023 Awardees:

Track 1: Impact 2030 Grants

Developing a metabolic trait-based species distribution model for southern flounder

All living organisms need to balance energetic demands against the energy supply available in their environment. For fishes and other aquatic ectotherms, this relationship is governed not only by the
food supply in a given habitat, but also by the available oxygen and the thermal sensitivities of an organism’s metabolism. More simply, hypoxia limits oxygen uptake and warming raises baseline oxygen
demand of fishes according to species specific constants governed by their metabolic traits. Recent efforts in fisheries management have harnessed the response of species’ metabolic traits to environmental
factors to develop mechanistically-based species distribution models that identify metabolically available habitats and provide a tool to evaluate existing habitat quality and predict the consequences of environmental change. The most utilized of these tools is the metabolic index model. This proposal will seek to develop a metabolic index model for the southern flounder, a species of particular interest to Texas Parks and Wildlife owing to their status as a prized sportfish and dwindling numbers along the Texas coast. To accomplish this work, UTMSI staff will empirically derive metabolic trait data in southern
flounder across a range of temperatures and oxygen tensions. This work will be performed in pre- and post-metamorphic life stages to account for shifts in metabolic and respiratory traits across development.
This metabolic data will be combined with population monitoring data from Texas Parks and Wildlife, including associated temperature and oxygen measurements, to develop a minimum metabolic habitat requirement for larval and juvenile/adult life stages. The developed model will be used to answer a suite of management relevant questions related to the role of environmental factors on historical, present-day and future southern flounder populations.

Andrew Esbaugh (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Zachary Olsen (External Partner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)


Favoring the Dark Side: Research to Reduce Malpigmentation and Improve Stock Enhancement of Southern Flounder in Texas 

Southern Flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) is a popular and economically important game fish in Texas, but its populations have been declining throughout its range since the mid-1980s. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) implemented a stock-enhancement program to augment flounder populations, but approximately 30% of the fish they produce are malpigmented (lack skin pigmentation), which makes them
exceptionally vulnerable to predators. The goals of the proposed project are (1) to develop recommendations that TPWD can use to improve their hatchery methods to minimize or eliminate malpigmentation in flounder, and (2) to identify genes whose expression levels can be used to screen batches of early stage larvae so that TPWD resources are not expended to rear batches that are destined to have a high malpigmentation rate. We will accomplish these goals by conducting experiments to test the effects of specific hatchery practices on malpigmentation rate. Specific hatchery practices to be tested (larval diets, illumination, or tank color) will be selected based on consultation with our TPWD partner and his team. State-of-the-art molecular tools will be applied to samples of larvae obtained from those experiments to investigate the physiological and developmental pathways that are responsible for malpigmentation. Tag-Seq transcriptomics of bodies of larvae will be used to interrogate gene expression for developmental pathways in the skin that differ according to malpigmentation rate. Single nucleus transcriptomics will be used on brains of larvae to test the hypothesis that malpigmentation is associated with dysregulation of homeostatic processes in the brain of developing flounder. If either of the project goals is achieved, the recommendations could be implemented immediately to make TPWD’s stock enhancement program for Southern Flounder more effective and more cost-efficient. Since the TPWD stock-enhancement effort is already underway, results of this research can have an immediate positive impact on the success of that program.

Lee Fuiman (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Chris Mace (External Partner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)


Assessment of Microplastics in Wastewater Treatment Facility Effluent Discharges in the Texas
Coastal Bend

With increasing plastics production and poor management of the plastics debris in the Texas Coastal Bend, microplastics are becoming a serious ecological and economic problem. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) play an important role in releasing microplastics to the environment. WWTPs not only contribute to environmental plastic accumulation, but due to their absorptive properties, microplastics can also contribute to the spread of micropollutants in our local bays and estuaries. Therefore, effective detection of microplastics and understanding their occurrence and fate in WWTPs are of great importance towards microplastics control and healthier Texas Gulf Coast communities. This project will be carried out through a collaboration between the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, the Nueces River Authority, and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program. The goals of this project are to (1) evaluate WWTP effluent flows to establish sampling protocols, (2) develop baseline data regarding microplastic concentration and composition, and (3) propose management measures to reduce microplastic concentrations in WWTP effluent discharges. Over the past four years, the NRA and CBBEP have collaborated to help rural WWTPs in the Coastal Bend to address operations, infrastructure, and funding needs. This ongoing effort has culminated with the NRA managing or providing assistance and/or biweekly training to 18 facilities in the region. These community partnerships, along with the technical expertise of UTMSI research staff, provide an excellent opportunity to assess microplastic concentrations and composition in the effluent discharges of these plants and to implement identified management measures. This project will help quantify and characterize the contribution of WWTPs to microplastic concentrations in Coastal Bend marine environments and inform future efforts to reduce these inputs. Results will be shared with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas General Land Office, Texas Water Development Board, Texas Water Conservation Association, and Water Environment Association of Texas.

Kaijun Lu (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Zhanfei Liu (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Adrien Helmy (External Partner, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program)

Travis Pruski (External Partner, Nueces River Authority)

Marisa Balarin-Juarez (External Partner, Nueces River Authority)


Track 2: Impact 2075 Grants

Seaweed farming as the basis for a new green economy in Texas intra-coastal waters - a pilot study

Apart from an offshore pilot project, seaweed farming is so far non-existent in Texas waters. This is surprising given the commercial success of seaweed farming in other parts of the world. The aim of this project is to investigate the potential of Texas coastal bays and estuaries as locations for a new sustainable seaweed industry. The project has two research components: the first is a market assessment that includes a techno-economic analysis of farming, transportation, and delivery of each species to downstream applications. It estimates the demand potential for the local market and identifies any opportunities or challenges for commercialization. The second involves the development of protocols for the laboratory-based propagation and field-based farming of three native seaweed species that differ in economic potential. As part of this component, we will also determine the nutritional value and toxin loads of seaweeds grown under different conditions in intracoastal waters and analyze the potential for seaweed farms to increase carbon sequestration and nutrient removal from natural waters. We will explore collaborations with local restaurants, oyster farmers, and cattle researchers to identify local uses of harvested seaweed, and participate in entrepreneur and community founding events in which we will share our work to foster technoeconomic collaborations and innovations. We will, moreover, publicize our work through engagement in K12 teaching, public lectures, food festivals, local to national news outlets, and academic publications.

Mark Lever (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Ning Lin (Jackson School of Geosciences)


Macroplastics to nanoplastics: Unraveling environmental plastic weathering and pollution on the Texas Gulf Coast

Texas bays, estuaries and coasts are increasingly threatened with plastic pollution due to the increase of coastal populations and the accelerating production and use of plastic products in our daily life. Our limited
understanding of plastic weathering has severely hindered the scientific community from answering some basic questions from the public and policy makers, such as: how long do plastics last in the ocean? To address these questions from practical purposes such as policy making, we need to understand the fundamental processes occurring on plastic surfaces in the environment, of which photochemical reactions, including mechanisms and production of nanoparticles, are a major degradation pathway. Nurdles, as preproduced plastic pellets often with cylinder or sphere shape (1-5 mm diameter), are more concentrated along the Texas shoreline than other Gulf of Mexico coasts and beyond. Their environment relevance and well-defined chemical composition make nurdles an ideal model to interrogate the fundamental mechanisms governing how macroplastics are degraded to nanoplastics and truly dissolved compounds in seawater. Liu and Baiz, experts on marine biogeochemistry and molecular spectroscopy/biophysics, respectively, teamed up to approach the mechanism of plastic aging from a basic science perspective but also engage the local community along the Texas Gulf Coast. A a suite of advanced instruments will be
used to characterize the surface properties of weathered nurdles from laboratory simulation and the field. Particularly the advanced IR spectroscopy and nano-IR microscopy in the Baiz lab as part of a $1.4M NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant, will be used for the first time to characterize weathered plastic surfaces. Although nurdles will be studied in this project, knowledge gained can be applied to degradation of any plastics in the environment, thus the potential of this project has broad implications given the growing concerns over plastic contamination in waterways of Texas and beyond.

Zhanfei Liu (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Carlos Baiz (Chemistry)

Disentangling plankton food webs along the Texas Gulf Coast to predict the future of estuarine ecosystems

The productive estuaries along the Texas Coastal Bend will be subjected to a wide range of climatic changes over the next half century. Notably, temperatures are predicted to increase, dissolved oxygen to decrease, and prolonged drought periods to be punctuated by intensifying storms. This suite of environmental changes will impact water quality, as well as disproportionately impacting plankton, tiny floating organisms that serve as the base of the food web in estuarine ecosystems. Environmental changes have already disrupted plankton communities along the Texas Coastal Bend. For example, phytoplankton communities shift following stark changes in rainfall, and zooplankton communities change with alterations in temperature, salinity, and oxygen. Yet, it is unclear how these changes propagate up the food web, potentially affecting the entire ecosystem. In the proposed study, we seek to examine future plankton-centric food web dynamics and anticipate the impacts of global change on our valuable coastal ecosystems. We will conduct bimonthly monitoring of phytoplankton and zooplankton communities in the Mission-Aransas and Trinity-San Jacinto estuaries, capturing a variety of environmental conditions over one year. In addition, using advanced molecular approaches, we will investigate trophic linkages among phytoplankton, zooplankton, and planktonfeeding fishes to gain high-resolution trophic information at the base of the estuarine food web. Finally, combining historic long-term plankton and fish data with our high resolution datasets, we will construct food web models with high taxonomic and spatiotemporal resolution. These models will facilitate our understanding of how climatic changes will impact estuarine food webs over the next fifty years. In addition, these models will be shared with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, allowing resource managers to consider projected changes to inform their management of recreational and commercial harvesting along the Texas Coastal Bend.

Jordan Casey  (University of Texas Marine Science Institute)

Mevin Hooten (Statistics & Data Sciences)

$1.9 Million Grant to Protect Texas Oyster Reefs 
Chris Biggs Recognized for Teaching

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