Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Natural coastal habitats throughout Chesapeake Bay are increasingly threatened with shoreline modification due to population growth and rising rates of development. The replacement of these natural coastlines with hardened structures such as seawalls (bulkheads) and stone revetments (riprap) not only compromises vegetation at the land-water interface, but also can influence several elements of local aquatic food webs. Effects of these alterations have been well-studied with respect to fish assemblages and intertidal communities, particularly in conjunction with larger-scale watershed development, and recently, interest has shifted toward investigation of the effects of shoreline development on subtidal benthic infaunal communities.
This study evaluated the direct, local impacts of bulkhead and riprap compared to natural marsh shorelines, as well as the effects of sediment characteristics, predator abundance, and system-specific physical features on benthic infauna in the Patuxent River, Chesapeake Bay. Forty-five sites were divided among three shoreline types and distributed across three main river zones. At each site, a benthic infaunal suction sample (3-mm mesh), push-core sample (500-μm mesh), sediment samples, water-quality measurements, and trawls for predators were taken. Samples were sorted to determine density, diversity, and biomass of infaunal organisms. Data were assessed using an Information-Theoretic approach (AIC analysis) to determine the most influential variables, of those measured, on the infaunal community for two benthic data sets: 3-mm-suctions and 500-μm-cores. Results from these analyses on 3-mm samples suggested that shoreline type was the best predictor of diversity, while wave energy, sediment chlorophyll concentration, sediment type, and predator abundance best predicted density and biomass. Benthic responses within the 500-μm dataset were not strongly affected by shoreline type. Rather, responses were best predicted by sediment chlorophyll, wave energy, sediment type, predator abundance, and sediment organic carbon (TOC) content.
Results indicate that, compared to other Bay tributaries, the Patuxent River is a relatively degraded system. The small range in long-term responses of Patuxent infauna from previous work provides a possible explanation as to why I was unable to see significant differences in infaunal response among shoreline types in the current study (i.e., there was little scope for change by shoreline in the system as a whole). However, I suggest that natural marsh habitats are healthier subsystems of the Patuxent River, due to the greater variety of infaunal feeding guilds and higher infaunal biomass observed at these compared to hardened sites. Higher predator abundance was associated with higher infaunal biomass at natural marsh sites in both size fractions, suggesting the bottom-up control of higher-trophic-level species in this system, as predators seek out suitable prey items. Given these observations, and the fact that influential variables such as wave energy, sediment nutrient and chlorophyll content, predator abundance, and sediment type may vary according to shoreline type, the replacement of natural shoreline with hardened structures will lead to complex changes in subtidal benthic communities in Chesapeake Bay tributaries and should be minimized to maintain qualities of the natural system.



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