Exploring the Sights and Sounds of a Deepwater Coral Marine Protected Area off Florida
Port Canaveral, Fla. April 29, 2003-- From April 29 to May 8, scientists and students will be exploring the deepwater coral reefs of the Oculina Banks, which stretch 30 miles offshore from Ft. Pierce to Cape Canaveral. This remote area includes the East Coast's first Marine Protected Area (MPA), a model for efforts underway to create new MPAs throughout southeast U.S. waters and the Gulf of Mexico. The team will use a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to study the current health of coral on the banks, which has been decimated in places by commercial trawling. They will also test an acoustic monitoring system that could one day be used to not only monitor fish behavior but also to detect illegal fishing activity on the reefs.
The mission will involve scientists from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Fisheries, the College of Charleston and Florida State University. The general public and students will be able to follow the expedition through daily logs posted to a Website and a Webcast from the ship.
Over the past thousand years, the ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa, has constructed a series of over one hundred pinnacles, mounds and ridges in water depths of 150 to 300 feet underneath the Gulf Stream. The Oculina Banks can be as large as 100 feet high and 1000 feet wide and are a favored target of sport and recreational fishers hunting for reef fish and pelagic fish such as tuna, and of shrimp trawlers.
The diversity of life on the Oculina coral reefs is similar to that of shallow tropical coral reefs. They support dense and diverse populations of more than 70 fish species and are important breeding grounds for commercially important populations of gag and scamp grouper as well as snappers, groupers, black sea bass, jacks, tuna, giant sunfish, manta rays and several shark species. The Banks location at the southern end of the South Atlantic Bight (ocean between Cape Canaveral and Cape Hatteras), directly under the Gulf Stream, makes it a potentially important source of fish larvae for the entire southeast U.S. continental shelf.
Shrimp, the most valuable fishery species for the southeast U.S., are also plentiful on the Oculina Banks and are the target of trawl fishing there, which can destroy the live coral mounds. Undersea expeditions since the 1970s have shown that at least 90% of the live coral cover in the area has been reduced to rubble, which has little value as breeding, nursing and feeding habitat compared to healthy mounds.
In 1984, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), the governing body that establishes fishing regulations, first designated a 92-square-mile portion of the Oculina Banks as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (OHAPC). This decision was heavily influenced by years of work at the site by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution researcher John Reed, who will be chief scientist on this year's expedition. In 1994, the SAFMC closed the OHAPC to all bottom fishing except trolling for pelagic fish, and in 2000 they expanded the area to about 300 square miles from Fort Pierce to Cape Canaveral. However, due largely to the difficulty of patrolling this remote location, illegal trawling continues in the closed area.
The Oculina Banks cruise will take place on board the M/V Liberty Star, a NASA space shuttle support ship operated by the United Space Alliance and normally used to retrieve spent solid rocket boosters. Last year another cruise on the ship produced the first-ever high-resolution three-dimensional color map of the Oculina Banks. The map is at least 15 times more accurate than any previously produced and will allow researchers on this year's cruise to zero in on the last remaining stands of live ivory tree coral. The Phantom SII undersea robot equipped with video and still cameras provided by the National Undersea Research Center at UNCW surveys the reefs and collects small coral samples using its robot arm in order to assess the growth and health of the reefs.
A key goal for the expedition will be to understand the condition of the Oculina habitat and fish populations and to establish a baseline from which to gauge the success of the Oculina MPA in restoring them. Data collected will be integrated with past work into a Geographic Information System (http://www.uncw.edu/oculina).
Scientists on the Oculina cruise will also be deploying a Passive Acoustic Monitoring System (PAMS) developed by NASA to monitor the impacts of rocket launches on wildlife refuge lagoons at the Kennedy Space Center. Led by Dr. Grant Gilmore, Dynamac Corporation, they will test the system's suitability for detecting offshore fish populations and vessel traffic. PAMS uses technology similar to that which allows the Navy to detect ships and submarines. Scientists from NASA Kennedy Space Center and NOAA Fisheries will join Dr. Gilmore to see if the unit can be used to detect the presence of specific fish species and behaviors such as courtship and spawning aggregation. If so, the system could dramatically increase monitoring capabilities at the remote reefs.
The SAFMC is currently considering establishing new MPAs throughout the southeast U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico to help sustain declining reef fisheries, particularly snapper and grouper. Research at the Oculina Banks will provide crucial information to aid managers in making decisions about the new MPAs, including whether to extend the closure of the Oculina MPA beyond its current end date in 2004.
The expedition Website
produced by Project Oceanica (http://oceanica.cofc.edu/oculina/home.htm)
will include background material on the OHAPC, daily logs from sea
and access to the live, ship-board Webcast to be held on May 1, 2003,
from 11 am to 3 p.m., co-sponsored by NASA's Oceanography Program,
the Kennedy Space Center's Telescience Lab and NURC/UNCW, and produced
by EnterAcked, Inc. The Webcast will include interviews with scientists
and ship’s crew, live underwater video from the ROV and questions
from the on-line audience.
Dept. of Geology & Environmental Geosciences
College of Charleston
Charleston, SC 29424