Hurricanes Recharge Ecosystems by Supplying Nutrients

There are a few positives to the force of nature
Naturalist and author Jack Rudloe of Panacea displays a blue crab while standing on his “living dock,” a place where, barring storms, he “stands over the water, satisfies an inherent need for serenity and watches the currents sweep by.” Photo by Saige Roberts

Naturalist, researcher, author and businessman Jack Rudloe of Panacea believes that when food is taken from the sea, food should be placed back into the sea.

And Rudloe, who is president of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, views the countless trees that were felled by Hurricane Michael as “seafood,” that is, food that can replenish coastal waters.

“The so-called debris and the sea grasses and trees and all that stuff should be dumped out into the ocean to replenish everything, but instead we spend millions and millions of dollars hauling it to landfills where it is just going to rot,” Rudloe said.

“There’s no more driftwood, and really it is part of the natural ecosystem. Over millions of years, marine animals made adaptations and came to depend on wood getting flushed by rivers and creeks into bays and estuaries. Shipworms rely on wood, fouling organisms grow on it and oysters attach to it. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Hurricanes, then, can invigorate bays and estuaries in the same ironic way that forest fires are good for forests. 

Storms, said Rudloe, have the immediate effect of stirring up the “goop” and the detritus on marsh bottoms and, in such a way, disbursing vitamins and nutrients that promote plankton blooms. Food chains are recharged and, before long, shrimp populations boom.

It’s what Rudloe and others have called the Bubba Gump Phenomenon.

“Over the years, the phenomenon has been reported along the coast from North Carolina to Texas,” Rudloe and his now late wife Anne wrote in Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold. “In the movie ‘Forrest Gump,’ the entire Alabama fleet is washed up on the hill, and when Forrest goes back out and hauls in his nets, he’s buried in shrimp. That story isn’t all fiction. Some of the best shrimping comes after a big storm that shakes things up and provides brand new structure.”

In The Living Dock, Rudloe cited a study by Dr. Philip Butler at Gulf Breeze Laboratories that demonstrated that waters are much more productive after a storm.

“For several years, Butler hung plaques in the bay and studied colonization,” Rudloe wrote. “He found that after a hurricane, oysters, barnacles, bryozoans and other fouling creatures increased their numbers two- and three-hundredfold.”

Of course, the experience of individual species may vary. Sponge communities, for example, may be washed out to sea. But that, said Rudloe, “is natural, too. Things come and go and no two hurricanes are exactly alike.”

Rudloe’s dock at Panacea, which he built back after Hurricane Michael mangled it, has been through nine hurricanes and tropical storms and has come and gone several times.

“We are stealing food from the ocean,” Rudloe emphasized. “You could easily put trees on barges and disperse them up and down the coast in appropriate areas. We think of nutrients as negative, and the sewage and the pollution we introduce to the water are bad, but nutrients supplied by nature are part of a healthy process that increases productivity and fisheries — and fisheries equal money.

“We overnutrify the environment, but nature, left to its own devices, supplies nutrients in just the right amounts, and it does so at the right time.”

Rudloe is frustrated that public policies impede rather than encourage feeding our estuaries. He is irritated that, in the United States, we discard rather than employ natural substances of value.

China extracts chitin from shrimp shells to make bandages that promote healing of wounds in an extraordinarily short length of time.

“But we just throw it in the landfills,” Rudloe said. “We’re good at that. But, maybe, things will change one day. Nothing lasts forever, not even our pollution and our alteration of nature and her environment.”

So, it may be that in time we become less civilized or more civilized, depending on how you look at it, and learn to throw trees in the sea.

Categories: Hurricane Michael