Serving Georgia’s low country

Marine Extension offers education, research and assistance to protect the state’s coastal resources

Serving Georgia’s low country

Fisherman Charlie Phillips (left) and Javon Howard take advantage of the early morning low tide to harvest clams that are large enough to sell.

Photo by: Peter Frey

It’s a Friday afternoon on Charlie Phillips’ dock and bags of 200-count clams are packed and tagged for delivery to New York and Canada, as well as to local destinations. In one week, he ships 7,000 to 8,000 pounds from his small business, Sapelo Sea Farms in Townsend. Soon, he hopes to process twice that many.

“The clams are keeping me in business,” says Phillips, a commercial fisherman who has fished the waters from Corpus Christie, Texas, to Key West to southern Georgia for nearly four decades. “I would have almost nobody working if it wasn’t for this.”

The future of the commercial fisherman looked grim in the late 1970s, when overfishing, coupled with strict government regulation, caused a decline in the pounds of shrimp the commercial trawlers were bringing in. Many went out of business.

Phillips, with help from the UGA Marine Extension Service, survived by diversifying his operation to include clam, and more recently, oyster farming. His once seasonal business now runs year round and generates nearly a half million dollars annually.

“There’s no way, shape or form I’d be doing clams right now without UGA,” Phillips says. “I might be digging a few, but I wouldn’t be doing aquaculture.”

Helping the marine industry is one of the key functions of UGA’s Marine Extension Service (MAREX) and an impetus for its creation in the 1970s by then-vice president for public service J.W. Fanning. The idea was for UGA to help the marine industries as the Agricultural Extension Service had been helping the farming industry for decades.

Originally, Marine Extension Director Randal Walker says MAREX was created to help the fishing industry expand. An educational component followed, with programs to help Georgia residents better understand the coast.

When Georgia shrimpers felt the pinch from the government restrictions on their industry, MAREX stepped in to help. The fishermen, Walker says, were having trouble with the turtle excluder devices that the feds had required them to attach to their nets so that they would not trap and drown endangered sea turtles. Researchers at UGA developed a different device, one that was less costly and more efficient. When the federal officials saw that the device worked better than their own, they gave shrimpers permission to use it. Previously, when jellyfish became an obstacle for the shrimpers, marine extension developed a jellyball shooter device that excluded jellies from the nets. This device was tweaked to exclude turtles as well.

“We worked with the commercial industry showing them how to install them,” Walker says.

Blue crabs, clams, cannonball jellyfish and oysters are other marine life that extension has helped expand commercially along the Georgia coast.

Perhaps more important, however, have been efforts to clean up the coastline, rivers, creeks and estuaries, which provide protection for much of the marine life.

In the late 1980s, concerned fishermen and environmentalists called UGA to complain about the water quality near Brunswick. MAREX worked with local officials along the coast to identify sources of the water pollution and to educate them about the problems new development can cause the fragile ecosystems.

Over time additional programs developed to help protect the coastline and marshes. Volunteers now participate in an Adopt-a-Wetland program and monitor an assigned area for water quality and habitat health. Others participate by oyster shell recycling, dropping off their remains from oyster roasts at one of five shell recycling centers in Jekyll Island, Tybee Island, Skidaway Island, Darien and Brunswick. The shells are used to create new oyster reefs along the river banks. New oysters attach to the old shells and form clusters. As filter feeders, oysters help clean the water of algae and pollutants.

“Water quality is the biggest issue on the coast,” Walker says.

Few know that as well as Jeb Byers, an associate professor of ecology at UGA who spends much of his time on the Georgia coast monitoring the mollusk population.

On a late afternoon in June, Byers and his staff, based on Skidaway Island near Savannah, take their boat across the river to check on the oyster reefs they are attempting to develop in a controlled environment. There are nine sites, each fenced with mesh over the top to keep out unwanted predators. The oysters, harvested from the river, were rinsed with fresh water to clear away other organisms before they were placed on beds in the cages.

Some of the oysters are in clean cages, which means the oysters were the only things visible inside the cages when they were left. In others, Byers placed certain predators—oyster drills (small snails that bore holes into clams and oyster), blue crabs, stone crabs and toad fish.

Working with researchers from Florida State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Byers will study the effects the predators have on the oysters as the reefs develop. Their findings could provide critical insight into how the ecosystem functions. Oyster reefs provide fish habitats, erosion control and water filtration.

Their findings on this day are disappointing.

“Oh no,” says postdoctoral student Heidi Weiskel as she looks over the cages. “Our predators are all dying.”

Holes underneath two of the cages indicate the stone crabs have dug their way out. The blue crabs are missing or dead. One stone crab has been mutilated, its body torn away from its massive claws and cleaned out. There’s no sign of the toad fish, which may be burrowed in the mud beneath the oyster shells.

“That’s not what I expected,” Byers says. “I expected the blue crabs to be in pieces.”

By the next day, Byers has spoken by phone to his colleagues on the project. They’ve agreed to put more blue crabs into some of the cages and also try additional predators.

Byers is one of many UGA researchers who use the MAREX resources available on the coast. Walker says he’ll also call in researchers from UGA when someone from the marine industry comes to him with a problem.

“Working with scientists is very important to us,” he says. “We do a lot. We help the state in a lot of ways.”

But that’s not what’s important to these 7- and 8-year-olds combing the salt marsh along the Skidaway River on a warm June morning. They are looking for fiddler crabs and coffee bean snails, “no bigger than the tip of your finger,” Summer Camp Director and Marine Educator Anne Lindsay tells them.

She points out a male fiddler crab, which has one claw much longer than the other. The males use the long claw to attract females, Lindsay says and waves her arm as if to say, “come on.”

“Everybody do your fiddler crab wave,” she says.

An excited Leighton Carpenter, 8, of Atlanta, holds out a plastic cup in which he’s trapped a very small fiddler crab.

“I’ve caught the tiniest crab in history!” he boasts.

“How did you even see that?” Lindsay asks.

Farther along they find tiny periwinkle snails. Lindsay tells them to hold the snail shell’s opening to their throats and hum.

The vibration coaxes the snail out. The marsh proves to be a boundless source of excitement. As the campers hunt for the snails and chase mud crabs, a Wood Stork soars overhead. The black and white birds, which can stand 40 inches tall with a five-foot wingspan, are an endangered species. In the river, a dolphin rolls by.

This is the 20th year of the summer camps, which are part of the larger, year-round education component of marine extension. The Marine Education Center and Aquarium (MECA) offers visitors an opportunity to explore marine life and learn about the coastal ecosystem and its inhabitants. Throughout the year, kindergarteners through college students visit the center for daylong or overnight education programs. Groups often go trawling on the R/V Sea Dawg, part of the UGA marine fleet on the Georgia coast.

Claire Oldfield, 8, is part of the summer camp group that goes crabbing off the pier behind the aquarium. She waits as Camp Counselor Mary Sweeney-Reeves ties a piece of raw chicken into the bottom of a basket attached to a long rope. When the bait is secure, Claire carries the basket to the edge of the pier and drops it in.

The blue crabs must be over 5 inches from point to point on their shells in order to keep them. Otherwise, they must be thrown back. Sweeney-Reeves makes the excited campers wait five minutes before lifting their baskets to see if they’ve caught a crab.

“I got two! Oh my gosh, I got a jackpot,” Claire shouts as she pulls her basket up and over the pier railing.

Sweeney-Reeves gingerly pries one of the crabs from the chicken and turns it over so that the children can see the underbelly. She can tell from the obelisk-shaped indentation on its bottom that it is a male. She takes a ruler and measures the distance between the points on its shell—four-and-a-half inches. Too small. She tosses it back into the water.

Over the next half hour, Claire will pull up a half dozen crabs, one of them almost seven inches across and big enough to keep. If the campers catch enough of the big ones this week, they will be treated to steamed blue crabs at lunch on Friday.

Claire beams as she slaps high fives with the other campers, many of whom also have pulled in crabs, most too small to keep.

"You,” says one of her fellow campers, “are the crab queen.”

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