A Deeper Understanding on the Gulf Coast

With over 50 years of dedicated research, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is still expanding horizons. They’re just getting their feet wet with their new multi-stressor wet lab.

Master’s student Matheus de Barros feeds the fish several times a day as part of his duties in the sea lab. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Words that describe Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s (DISL) new multi-stressor wet lab include “cutting edge” and “state of the art.” More importantly, the lab facilitates water-based research that embodies these terms as well, with great impact to the Gulf Coast.

Admittedly, “multi-stressor wet lab” isn’t in most people’s daily vocabulary. The phrase might conjure images of a sterile white room and complicated-looking equipment. Add in a few gloved-and-coated scientists scribbling down copious notes and you’ve got a scene straight out of Hollywood. While this perception is partially accurate (the DISL staff and students do conduct experiments and keep meticulous records), the research at the multi-stressor wet lab isn’t so abstract. It is highly significant to our local environment.

Technically speaking, the facility that is home to DISL’s newest lab isn’t that new at all. The wet lab is housed in a repurposed World War II-era generator building. Old military buildings converted into other labs, classrooms, housing and more is a common (and sustainable) theme amongst the facilities on campus, which is located on the former Dauphin Island annex of Brookley Air Force Base. Sitting unassumingly by the water, the facility doesn’t outwardly convey the lab’s value. Inside the faded brick-colored building, 32 bubbling 40-gallon aquarium systems are the first and most obvious indication that something special is going on here.

“The environmental conditions along the Gulf Coast are changing rapidly, faster than in many other coastal regions,” says Dr. Ronald Baker, a senior marine scientist at DISL and assistant professor of the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of South Alabama. “This system will allow us to better understand how important species like oysters, blue crabs, speckled trout and flounder will respond to changing conditions.”

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The multi-stressor wet lab gives staff and students the chance to control multiple elements — or “stressors” — in an animal’s environment simultaneously. Most labs only allow researchers to study the impact of one stressor (water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH or salinity) at a time. Given that the threshold for one stressor may change in the face of different stressors, this new ability to work with these elements significantly expands research boundaries at DISL. “In our region, temperatures are warming, inflows of freshwater and saltwater to the Bay are changing salinity patterns, and hypoxic events are becoming more common and widespread,” says Baker. “Understanding how different organisms may respond to these conditions is critical for predicting future trends in their populations.”

Clockwise from left Students and interns at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab go about the daily duties of conducting water quality checks, feedings and water changes. Intern Grace Stringer holds a multiparameter probe, which measures salinity, dissolved oxygen and temperature.

A critical part of this is mimicking the water’s state during specific weather events, from extreme weather conditions to common area occurrences. Take, for example, a jubilee. “One thing about water is it tends to hold less oxygen as the temperature goes up,” says Matt Boehm, marine tech support for the lab. “In the summertime, the water is hot, causing the oxygen level to plummet as the temperature goes up. That’s a common combination that happens in jubilees.” DISL scientists simulate low-oxygen water in combination with the other factors that lead to a jubilee and observe how it affects marine wildlife.

Salinity, or the amount of salt in the water, is also significant to jubilees and another particularly relevant stressor in our local environment, where freshwater and saltwater mix in some areas and stay separate in others. Studying wildlife reactions to varying salinity patterns informs both scientists and hatcheries which habitats may increase population health, a major goal in the DISL research projects. On the flip side, they also find out which environments may stagger population growth. With four 1,100-gallon storage and mixing tanks as well as a 15,000-gallon tank for storing and staging water collected from a part-time Bay pump, the wet lab has plenty of room to experiment. 

Thanks to the makeup of the aquarium systems, several research projects can be conducted at the same time. Each aquarium system is independent; while one may have high salinity and low temperature, the one next to it may have low salinity and high temperature, and so on. The systems are managed using APEX controllers, a brand of aquarium-monitoring technology that permits remote access and easily handles changes to water quality. Need to decrease the water’s oxygen levels? With a push of a button, one of the tanks starts to bubble nitrogen into the water, rapidly lowering oxygen levels. Within an hour, the water can be fully depleted of oxygen. As impressive as this technology may be, it is also practical. “When you multiply a task by 32 systems, your workload goes up quickly,” says Boehm. “With this interface, we can take control and manipulate everything. We can program settings and put elements on timers. And it’s easy. It’s plug and play.”

The lab works hard to carefully control all the variables within their research to increase data reliability. Their population of young fish is sourced from Claude Peteet Mariculture Center, a hatchery in Gulf Shores, to ensure uniformity. “They’re all the same age, and they’re all the same size,” says Boehm. “So, whatever you’re studying, you have a uniform population. If you have a population of random-sized fish, they might handle things a lot better than small fish.” The DISL is currently using the system to examine at tolerances of species such as flounder and speckled trout. “Survival of young juveniles is particularly important,” says Baker. “By understanding the tolerances for interacting effects of temperature and salinity, we can predict the future quality and suitability of nursery habitats under changing environmental conditions. We use the findings of experiments on individual stressors to guide the design of our multi-stressor experiments.”

The sea lab’s research doesn’t just live inside a notebook or on a chart. That’s where the beauty (and importance) lies. The findings allow scientists to fully grasp the impact that local conditions have on marine life. These discoveries are then imparted through education and presentation. And, while the Dauphin Island Sea Lab does not control policy, their research is shared with those that do. Considering the most up-to-date research when environmental policies are reviewed or enacted gives the Bay area the best shot at protecting native species. “The research done here benefits everybody,” says Boehm. “It’s for the sake of the knowledge. We’re learning more …. And [it’s] for the sake of better management. The research protects the species we have out there.”

While everyday people may unintentionally overlook or are not aware of the impact of DISL’s research, that impact is still felt every day. And, with the new research facility operating at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the community is more equipped than ever to understand the effects of our ever-changing environment.

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