The underwater habitats that lie below the calm, turquoise waters surrounding the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI) are at the heart of a current NOAA scientific research mission.
The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is leading a group of researchers as they try to locate and map the sensitive coral reef ecosystems and areas where fish reproduce (spawning grounds) in the region. Over the course of three weeks, the group will explore a large area of the open ocean south of the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and eastern Puerto Rico looking for clues.
The data collected will be used to create seamless habitat maps of the sea floor. Identifying the location and distribution of coral reefs and other habitat types in this manner is critical for resource managers and scientists. Much like the maps we use above water to find streets and buildings, coral reef ecosystem scientists and managers use the sea floor maps to locate important habitats they need to study, monitor and protect. These maps are also useful to ship and ferry captains who need to safely navigate their vessels to avoid contact with the reef that can damage both the sensitive habitat and their vessels.
Twenty-four hour operations take place aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, a 187-foot oceanographic research vessel equipped with all the tools needed for complex mission like this one. Researchers use technologies like sonar (a process similar to how a bat or dolphin locates objects), a remotely operated vehicle that captures live underwater video feeds, small drop cameras, and other tools to collect data. The researchers are also interested in fish behavior and ecology, particularly coral reef and coastal fish communities. Sonar and other high-tech gadgets will be used to study fish movements and how fish use certain habitats.
To see archives from previous missions for this project, click here. In addition, you can read about the 2010 cruise here. The JASON Project is a participating partner this year and conducted an interview of two NOAA scientists during the mission. Also, a freelance videographer joined the scientists and crew for the first half of the mission an produced a video for National Geographic about the mission's mapping activities.
Researchers document derelict fishing traps, six uncharted shipwrecks, and dozens of invasive lionfish
"Little was known about the distribution, extent, and health of mid-water coral reef ecosystems and marine fish associated with them before we began studying these areas eight years ago. We are providing detailed seafloor habitat and fish distribution/abundance information in areas that have never been previously characterized," lead scientist Tim Battista said.
NOAA scientists found increasingly rare colonies of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), which was once one of the most abundant coral species in the Caribbean, but is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Using sonar and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) data, the team also located nearly 50 derelict fishing traps and captured the presence of coral disease. Six uncharted shipwrecks were uncovered on the sea floor and four were explored with the ROV. The shipwreck sightings were reported to local maritime history authorities and their locations will be used to update nautical charts. Another surprise was the sighting of more than 30 invasive lionfish. Last year, there were no lionfish sightings in the survey area.
During a mid-cruise port visit to St. Thomas, scientists presented an informal science seminar to a group of regional politicians including Congresswoman Donna Christensen and staff, as well as members of the local Senate. Other education and outreach events during the cruise and port visit were aimed at engaging fishermen from the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association, local graduate researchers and grade school students.