Coral Banks
Oct. 17, 2002



Well, we're on day three of our expedition! We thought we'd thrill you with some information on the Oculina Banks and the mission. Following is a very interesting narrative written by John Reed, one of the principal investigators on our mission. It is so important that the public is aware of just what is happening to this rare and dying resource.

Fig. (John Reed of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution points out the Oculina Banks, just off of Cape Canaveral, Florida.)


2002 Mapping Survey
Oculina Deep-water Coral Reef
Marine Protected Area

By John Reed
October 17, 2002

Research Goals:
Our primary goal for this mission is to use the multibeam sonar survey to produce a high definition 3-D map of the bottom that will help us define the exact extent of the reef system. Previous fathometer surveys have been incomplete. The multibeam survey will provide details never possible before. With continued funding our future goals are: to determine how much live reef is left, to determine the extent of dead coral and damage from trawling, and to continue long-term monitoring of fish populations to see whether the fishing ban is helping with the recovery. Reef balls have also been deployed in the crushed areas of the reefs to provide habitat and structure for fish and coral to recover.

What are Oculina Reefs:
The deep-water Oculina coral reefs off central eastern Florida are unique and occur nowhere else on earth. They are made entirely by a single species of coral, the Ivory Tree Coral, Oculina varicosa. These form mounds and pinnacles that are up to 100 feet tall and provide habitat for an incredible diversity of fish and invertebrates. These reefs grow below the Gulf Stream at depths of 200 to 300 feet deep, along the edge of the continental shelf from Fort Pierce to Daytona Beach. In 1984, NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries designated a 92 sq. mile portion of the Oculina reefs as a marine reserve in order to protect the coral from bottom trawling and anchoring. In 2002, the Oculina reserve was expanded to 300 sq. miles, from Fort Pierce to Cape Canaveral; it is called the Deep-water Oculina Habitat Area of Particular Concern (OHAPC).

Fig. (This map shows the physical location of the Oculina Banks with two different areas of reef highlighted in yellow.)



The Importance of Oculina Coral as Habitat:
The Oculina coral provides habitat for an incredible diversity of fish and associated invertebrates including 70 species of fish, 230 species of mollusks, and 50 species of decapod crustaceans (crabs and shrimp). Fish species include various grouper (gag, scamp, snowy, speckled hind, warsaw), snapper, drum, porgies, sharks, amberjack, tuna, mackerel, and giant ocean sunfish. Large populations of gag and scamp grouper use these reefs as feeding and breeding grounds. Unfortunately by the late 1980s the fish populations had been severely decimated from over fishing, and in 1994 the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) placed a 10-year moratorium on bottom fishing to see if the grouper populations could recover. Since some of these grouper species do not breed until they are 10-15 years old, recovery will be a slow process.

Oculina is Delicate and Slow Growing:
Oculina coral is as fragile as china and is very slow growing. Deep-water Oculina only grows about 1/2" per year. Bushes of Oculina grow 3-5 feet tall and may be centuries old. The reefs themselves may be over 10,000 years old.

Fig. (A large coral head of Oculina Varicosa, this particular coral head is over a century old.)

Human Impacts:
Unfortunately some areas of the Oculina reefs have been severely impacted by human activities primarily from destructive fishing such as bottom trawling destroying vast areas of the coral. As recently as last year shrimp trawlers were caught poaching within the OHAPC and 8000 pounds of shrimp were confiscated. Bottom fishing also can impact the coral from heavy weights and fishing lines entangling the delicate coral and over fishing has certainly impacted the fish populations.

Fig. (This area on the seafloor flourished with Oculina Varicosa, now it is a bed of broken coral rubble. This section of reef was probably mowed down by a trawl net, if you look closely you can see the ridges in the sediment where the heavy “doors” of the trawl net have left their mark.)

Management Goals:
The recommended management goals and objectives are: to protect and conserve the unique and fragile coral habitat; to ensure commercial and recreational fish stocks; to create public awareness, education and research; and to regulate activities that could harm habitat but still allow non-detrimental commercial and recreational usage of these resources. In 2004 the SAFMC will reassess the ban on bottom fishing.

Fig. (A reef ball has been placed in an area of destroyed reef, to improve the growth of Oculina corals and to provide habitat for native species.)


The Future:
Submersible studies in 2001 have documented that the populations of scamp, gag, and snowy grouper appear to be greater than in 1994 prior to the fishing ban. Although they are still nowhere near the population densities present in the early 1980s, the good news is that they appear to be beginning to recover. Our studies have also shown that the grouper especially are attracted to the healthy reefs and very few are found on the dead reefs. It is imperative that we continue to educate the public, our government agencies, as well as commercial and recreational fishermen that these reefs are unique, irreplaceable resource. We also need better protection now. Although surveillance and enforcement will never be 100%, we must prevent any future damage from irresponsible poachers.

As you can see, our mission is vital to the survival of this one-of-a-kind resource. Public awareness is the key!

To keep you glued to your computer screen we're going to feature an interview with a different scientist or crew member each day and get the scoop on their job and how they got there…

Today we're going to interview scientist Stacey Harter (pictured left), from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The NMFS is a branch of NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association). Stacey is a Fisheries Biologist. She decided she wanted to go into marine science when, as a teenager, she was watching a special on the Discovery Channel about dolphins. It was then that she realized you can actually have a job and get paid for doing marine science! During her undergraduate studies Stacey did an internship in the labs at NMFS and ended up getting hired there after she graduated. She has a Bachelor's degree in Biology with an emphasis on marine science and recently got her Master's degree in marine science.

Stacey's duties include a juvenile reef fish recruitment project, which helps scientists predict the future population of specific fish species such as certain grouper and snapper. For this project she catches fish in a trawl net and measures them. For those that are already dead, she takes them back to the lab to determine their ages. Another project she is working on is on the W. Florida Shelf Marine Reserves. There, she studies the effectiveness of the marine reserve with remotely operated vehicles (ROV's), fish traps and video.

Stacey says the best part of her job is that she has a good mix of field and lab work and isn't stuck in either one all the time. If she had to pick something she likes the least it would be that being in the lab for long periods of time can get rather boring!

We asked Stacey "If you could be any kind of fish what would you be?" She said she would want to be something pretty and tropical like an Angelfish.


Ph. 843-953-7263
Project Oceanica
Lowcountry Hall of Science and Math
College of Charleston
Charleston, SC 29424
Fax 843-953-7850