Oculina Coral Banks 2003
Daily At-Sea Logs
May 1st, 2003

May 1, 03

Like Redwoods Under the Sea
by Taylor Sisk

Twenty miles, give or take off the coast of Florida, stretching from Daytona Beach down to Ft. Pierce, hugging tight to the continental shelf, deep-water coral reefs called Oculina varicosa grow on the ocean floor, 200 to 300 feet beneath the water’s surface. The deep-water Oculina reefs are quite unique, perhaps the only of their variety in the world. As such, in 1984, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service designated a 92-square-mile portion of these reefs as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), meaning that no fish trawling is allowed within its boundaries. In 1994, the MPA was closed to all manner of bottom fishing; in 2000, the area was expanded to 300 square miles.
(above: healthy Oculina)

Walk into a bait shop anywhere along the coast of Florida, though, and odds are the fishing map you pull from the rack will have no indication of the above. No mention of fishing restrictions, no acknowledgement of an MPA. And that’s a problem.

It certainly doesn’t make John Reed’s job any easier. Reed is a marine scientist with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Ft. Pierce. He’s presently co-principal investigator on an eight-day expedition led by the NOAA Undersea Research Program to learn more about the Oculina reefs. Reed has been studying the Oculina for 25 years; it’s been the primary focus of his entire career. It was he, in fact, who nominated the Oculina as a protected area.

“When I was first out of graduate school,” says Reed, “I was hired at Harbor Branch, and this was just after they’d discovered the deep-water Oculina reefs using the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible. They had just come across one of these 60 to 100 foot high reefs covered with coral. “My first study, in 1976, was to see what lived in the coral, what used it for habitat. And over the next 10 years I did a number of studies. I began to study the invertebrates, and what I found out was that a small coral with a head the size of a basketball could hold up to over 2,000 individual animals and hundreds of species, from worms to crabs to shrimp to fish – it was an incredibly bio-diverse environment that we had never known about before.
(at right: a bivalve imbedded in Oculina)

“By 1980, we realized that this was a totally unique habitat found nowhere else in the continental United States. And possibly nowhere else in the world. “At the same time, I began to look at how fast the coral grows. So my next study was to see how old their heads were. We were seeing coral heads the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. I did a study over two years and found that they actually grow very slowly, about a half an inch a year. So a large head could easily be 100, 200 years old. Then I did a core – which is just a sample within one of these reefs – to get some of the reef structure, and we did radio- carbon dating of the dead coral that came from the inside of the reef.”
(at left: a coral growth table)

What Reed and his colleagues learned was that the particular coral they had examined was 8,000 years old, meaning that the entire reef structure had been around 10,000 to 12,000 years. “We also came to realize,” Reed continues, “how fragile the coral was: the branches themselves are the diameter of a pencil, and the reefs form into big bushes. So imagine how any heavy weight, like fishing gear, dragging through it, could very easily crush it.

“At that time, in the early ‘80s, there was indication that boats were coming down from the Georgia coast and fishing with roller trawls; they could fish on the bottom of high-relief areas – they had wheels on chains so that they could easily roll over the bottom of the ocean.”

These rare coral reefs, home to hundreds of species, including commercially important fish, were being destroyed. It would take hundreds of years to restore them, if they could be restored at all. Thus the need for protection. (at right: trawl tracks through a destroyed Oculina reef)

“My main concern is that while on paper this has been a protected area since 1984, it’s still being heavily fished,” both by poachers and the unaware. “Tremendous damage can be done by an errant shrimp trawler going across one of these pristine reefs. One pass can destroy a great many reefs.”

Protected areas mean little if not for, first and foremost, public awareness. Maps indicating the boundaries of the MPA would certainly help. As will a further understanding of the importance of these national natural treasures.

“There is public outcry about making too many protected areas,” says Reed. “But the size of the MPA is really a miniscule percentage of the overall area. “They’re like the redwood forests. These reefs are thousands of years old. And there are no others like them in the world.”

This report was prepared by Taylor Sisk, a journalist, marketing communications consultant and film & video producer. He has written for The Independent, San Francisco Weekly, Southern Exposure and the Oxford Dictionary of the Social Sciences; was a writer/researcher on the History Channel: The Ellis Island Experience (CD-ROM; South Peak Interactive); and was director/producer for the Drug Policy Alliance’s California Help Stop AIDS TV ad campaign. He served as executive producer of Takeover: The Trials of Eddie Hatcher (Golden Gate Award, San Francisco International Film Festival; Jurors’ Selection, NC Film and Video Festival) and is presently at work on The Berrigan Brothers: America is Hard to Find. He is the proprietor of No Exit Productions, based in Kure Beach, North Carolina.
Sisk is aboard the Liberty Star as a contracted writer and communications consultant for the NOAA Undersea Research Program.

Ph. 843-953-7263
Project Oceanica
Dept. of Geology & Environmental Geosciences
College of Charleston
Charleston, SC 29424
Fax 843-953-7850