Plugging the leak: barrier island restoration following Hurricane Katrina enhances larval retention and improves salinity regime for oysters in Mobile Bay, Alabama.
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Changes in geomorphology of estuaries are common following major perpetuations such as hurricanes and may have profound impacts on biological systems. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created a new pass, called Katrina Cut, halving Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Significant decline in oyster population at Cedar Point Reef, the primary oyster harvest grounds in Mobile Bay, had persisted since then until the Cut was artificially closed in 2010. A bio-physical model for hydrodynamics and oyster larval transport was used to evaluate two potential mechanisms responsible for oyster population declines: salinity changes in the context of oyster habitat suitability and retention of oyster larvae. The model results revealed that when open Katrina Cut increased salinity at Cedar Point Reef. During high freshwater discharge, in particular, water exchange through Katrina Cut increased the bottom salinity from <5psu to well over 15 (sometimes>20)psu during the tropic tides. Elevated salinities are associated with greater predation on oysters and higher disease incidence. The presence of the Katrina Cut also reduced larval retention in the spawning area regardless of tidal or river discharge conditions. We conclude that closing the Cut likely improved conditions for oysters within Mobile Bay and eastern Mississippi Sound and that these improved conditions have contributed to increased oyster landings.