Some of the small islands, or “keys,” found in the reserve.
By Tim Battista
Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment,
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science
The relationship between science conducted to support marine management, and resource management supported by science, is one worth furthering. Historically, these two have not been fully intertwined. However, the increasing impacts of a burgeoning human population and a legacy of inadequate marine conservation demand better coordination.
Despite its relatively small size and geographical isolation, the U.S. Caribbean is not immune to the challenge of improved resource management. If anything, it is a microcosm of the issues being wrestled with by other regions throughout the coastal U.S, albeit on a smaller scale. The crux of the problem? Do we adequately understand that the condition of our coastal marine resources in order to make informed decisions on how to best manage those resources? In other words, can we evaluate the effects of management decisions to determine their effectiveness to mitigate or reverse human impacts?
Our current efforts are focusing on trying to address some of the aforementioned issues within the Northeast Reserve MPA (marine protected areas) in Puerto Rico. This MPA is a corridor that extends from the west side of the island from Culebra to Point Miquillo, and encompasses nearly 76,000 acres of land and sea habitat, from the intertidal zone to waters nearly 900 meters deep. It includes an area which supports a rich diversity of marine and terrestrial life, and beautiful coastlines and embayments. These characteristics are the impetus for protecting this region, but also contribute to its over-use.
The beauty and accessibility of a string of small islands that traverse the center of the MPA is a lure to recreational boaters. Sixty-five percent of licensed recreational boats in Puerto Rico are located in close proximity to the MPA. Coastal development, and stressors such as sedimentation, nutrients, and other contaminants associated with human use, are known to have a negative effect on the health of coastal communities. We are striving to better understand the current conditions of the marine resources, and the quantity and types of human activities that go on there, to provide valuable data and information for MPA managers to implement the appropriate conservation measures.
Using the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, we are focusing on mapping and characterizing the condition of seafloor habitats and fishes. While our efforts are targeted to further the understanding the coral reef ecosystems, we are also simultaneously collecting data to support updates to NOAA’s nautical charts. Charts for the area presently contain data that was collected in the early 1900’s. The Nancy Foster is one of the most versatile oceanographic vessels in the NOAA fleet, uniquely suited to support the diversity of work we do on our missions. She has several state-of-the art mapping systems, including: a mid-water multibeam sonar (0-1000m), split beam fish acoustic sonar, and a high resolution shallow water multibeam sonar (0-300m), all of which we use within the MPA. We also deploy a remotely operate vehicle to visualize underwater habitats and fish schools. We depend on the vessels dynamic positioning (DP) system for operations. The DP allows the ship to maintain any heading desired so that the ROV can slowly traverse an underwater transect while the ship maintains an optimum safe heading to the oceans swell or wind direction. The ROV allows us to “ground-truth” data we detect in the acoustic systems.
This is our second (and hopefully) final year mapping the deep water sections of the Northeast Reserve. In 2012, we mapped 220 km2 within the Reserve and 75 km2 of adjacent, potential spawning aggregation areas. We are hoping to complete the remaining (two) areas which encompasses about 350 km2. Data products from last year are already available for use and download with this year’s data to be released in October 2013.
Our goal at the conclusion of the survey is to make the detailed bathymetric data, habitat maps, and fish distribution maps available for users and managers. We recently released a similar type of benthic habitat map product for St. Croix, USVI. Leg 1 of the mission was largely successful with the eastern project area of the MPA completed, but rough seas forced us to seek protected water south of Vieques. However, we put this time to good use to conducted detailed mapping along the south shore of Vieques as well as the seamount Escollo Grappler, located along the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. Escollo Grappler is a remarkably unusual seamount, rising vertically 750 meters from depths of 800 meters to 50 meters. Sheer vertical walls surrounding the seamount rise to a stable flat platform on the surface. The feature was largely colonized by encrusting sponges, calcareous algae, and sporadic soft and hard coral. Unfortunately, the invasive lionfish is plentiful in this region, including the deepest sighting we have yet documented in our ten years in the Caribbean at 193.4 meters . Leg 2 of the mission commenced March 5 and continued until March 30. More blog posts on our mission to follow.