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Coastal squeeze on temperate reefs: long-term shifts in salinity, water quality, and oyster-associated communities

Cite this dataset

Tice-Lewis, Maxwell et al. (2022). Coastal squeeze on temperate reefs: long-term shifts in salinity, water quality, and oyster-associated communities [Dataset]. Dryad.


Foundation species such as mangroves, saltmarshes, kelps, seagrasses, and oysters thrive within suitable environmental envelopes as narrow ribbons along the land-sea margin. Therefore, these habitat-forming species and resident fauna are sensitive to modified environmental gradients. For oysters, many estuaries impacted by sea-level rise, channelization, and municipal infrastructure are experiencing saltwater intrusion and water-quality degradation that may alter reef distributions, functions, and services. To explore decadal-scale oyster-reef community patterns across a temperate estuary in response to environmental change, we resampled reefs in the Newport River Estuary (NRE) during 2013-2015 that were previously studied during 1955-1956. We also coalesced historical NRE reef distribution (1880s-2015), salinity (1913-2015), and water-quality driven shellfish closure boundary (1970s-2015) data to document environmental trends that could influence reef ecology and service delivery. Over the last 60-120 years, the entire NRE has shifted toward higher salinities. Consequently, oyster-reef communities have become less distinct across the estuary, manifest by 20-27% lower species turnover and decreased faunal richness among NRE reefs in the 2010s relative to the 1950s. During the 2010s, NRE oyster-reef communities tended to cluster around a euhaline, intertidal-reef type more so than during the 1950s. This followed from faunal expansions farther up-estuary and biological degradation of subtidal reefs as NRE conditions became more marine and favorable for aggressive, reef-destroying taxa. In addition to these biological shifts, the area of suitable bottom on which subtidal-reefs persist (ultimately regulated by up-estuary intrusion of marine waters) and support human harvest (driven by water quality, eroding from up-estuary) has decreased by >75% since the natural history of NRE reefs was first explored. This “coastal squeeze” on harvestable subtidal oysters (reduced from a 4.5-km to a 0.75-km envelope along the NRE’s main axis) will likely have consequences regarding the economic incentives for future oyster conservation, as well as the suite of services delivered by remaining shellfish reefs (e.g., biodiversity maintenance, seafood supply). More broadly, these findings exemplify how “squeeze” may be a pervasive concern for biogenic habitats along terrestrial or marine ecotones during an era of intense global change.