Project Baseline, a non-profit aquatic documentation initiative, is teaming with researchers from Florida-based universities for four days of underwater research, targeting shipwrecks in up to 240’ of water off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Project Baseline’s mission is to empower passionate citizens to observe and record change within the world’s aquatic environments in a way that fosters public awareness and supports political action. As part of this mission, Project Baseline organizers will be directing operations aboard the 146’ privately owned research vessel Baseline Explorer during this week’s research project. The vessel is designed to transport and deploy two manned submersibles, each rated to safely operate and enhance underwater exploration and research at depths up to 1,000’. The Baseline Explorer also supports teams of technical scuba divers who frequently accompany submersible missions to depths up to 400’. The submersible and scuba divers work in tandem to provide survey level data collection and qualitative observations not readily attainable by traditional diving operations that employ recreational divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
The team is targeting shipwrecks located roughly 2-3 miles off the coast of southeast Florida. Target locations include three shipwrecks: the Hydro-Atlantic, the Lowrance, and the Corey and Chris. All three targets lay at depths ranging from 150-240’. This places them squarely in the largely understudied mesophotic (low light penetration) zone that generally falls between 100-130’. The ship and her crew will travel to target areas each day, returning to the docks of Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale each evening.
Operations will commence on December 19, 2015 and conclude on the 23rd. Operations are dependent on the weather and sea state conditions.
The collective goal for this mission is to develop a robust sampling methodology using manned submersible and advanced technical scuba diving teams that will measure fish populations inhabiting deep-water shipwrecks. Project Baseline and Nova Southeastern researchers have assembled a team of fish survey design experts led by Dr. Brian Walker, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University. Members of this team are experienced in conducting years of research for a more comprehensive understanding of the distribution of fish populations in natural coral reef and artificial reef (shipwreck) environments throughout southeast Florida. Wrecks at depths beyond recreational diving limits (below 100’) have historically been excluded from research efforts due to the high costs, specialized equipment, and limited supply of skilled submersible pilots and scuba divers, yet they are known to contain diverse and abundant fish populations.
One of the team’s noticeable findings thus far is the reduced presence or absence of large grouper and snapper fish species in natural coral reef habitats. These species have been observed in greater numbers near the higher relief structures often associate with shipwrecks. The team has studied fish populations on wrecks including the Bill Boyd (265’), Caicos Express (240’) and Papas Wreck (270’) using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). During the upcoming series of dives with Project Baseline, the team is hopeful that the manned submersible’s increased field of view, when coupled with firsthand observations, can overcome two problems confounding ROV data: accuracy of fish identification and accuracy of abundance estimates.
Weather permitting, teams will dive two times per day. Each dive will inform submersible and technical dive team operations as they work with researchers on the surface to determine best practices for standardizing surveys that will capture fish populations and distributions on these wrecks. Researchers will be able to observe fish populations for extended periods of time that exceed the amount of time scuba divers can spend at these depths. Armed with firsthand observations, researchers will be able to direct qualitative data collection such as HD video and images collected by cameras, both attached to the submersibles and in the capable hands of highly trained scuba divers. Firsthand observations also allow researchers to gain a clear understanding of the spatial context of the wrecks, providing detailed feedback that will help inform protocol for future dive operations and data collection efforts.
Ultimately, the cumulative health, diversity, and abundance of fish populations dictate the amount of fish that can be removed from the ocean in a sustainable manner. Fisheries provide food and significant contributions to the economy at the state level. The unsustainable management of these fisheries can lead to wide-spread ecological collapse and a damaged economy for fishing and tourism industries. Yet, monitoring of fish populations in the mesophotic zone has gone largely unstudied. Methodologies established during this mission will inform operations initiated by other entitles such as NOAA, thereby expanding our understanding of fish populations beyond southeast Florida and into the broader Caribbean region and lead to better informed fishery management policies on a regional scale.