Scuba divers and manned submersibles discovered the destroyed remnants of oculina coral during a mission conducted by Project Baseline and Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute June 26 off the coast of Florida. According to researchers, the coral, which provides habitats for multiple species of fish and serves as a valuable economic resource for the states, was most likely destroyed by bottom fishing.
“It [oculina coral] provides really important habitats for both fish and a number of different crustaceans, including shrimp,” said Dr. Joshua Voss, an assistant research professor at FAU’s Harbor Branch, who studies the health of coral reefs. “We know these oculina habitats are ecologically and economically important, and so having really sharp delineations about where those habitats occur is important to setting boundary criteria for fishing.”
Specific locations along the oculina banks, which starts about 17 miles off shore and runs between Fort Pierce and Daytona, have not been visited by researchers since the mid-80s. Thanks to a partnership between Project Baseline and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Dr. Voss and his team were able to visit the reefs again for the first time with the aid of a technical dive team, and manned submersibles. Evidence of the destroyed coral was discovered by both the dive team and the submersible on the last day of the expedition after two previous dives turned up only sand and algae. Bottom trawling is suspected by Voss as the main cause of the broken reefs.
“We know that those oculina habitats are vulnerable to potential degradation from bottom trawls, related mostly to shrimp fishing, and so we wanted to come back to this site to try to assess any potential impacts of bottom trawls, or to relocate those sites so that if they are intact we can propose additional protective measures,” said Voss.
Bottom trawling is when a chain is dragged along the bottom in order to kick up the shrimp into a net out behind it. The chain however, can potentially harm coral as well, if it is not placed in the proper location away from fragile coral habitats. “Many of Project Baselines goals fall directly in line with Harbor Branch research goals. We’re really interested in finding and characterizing these habitats, and seeing how they might be changing over time,” said Voss.
Project Baseline is a non-profit organization working towards documenting underwater conditions to promote legislative and social change. Their expeditions in the Atlantic are conducted from the Baseline Explorer, a ship run by Brownie’s Global Logistics, who donates the vessel’s time to help advance Project Baseline’s goals.
“A lot of the time we are going places nobody has ever seen before,” said Dr. Todd Kincaid, director of Project Baseline, and the lead diver on the week’s mission. “So we have this window of opportunity to go out and do amazing things, and that’s what we are really trying to do,” said Kincaid.
In conducive underwater conditions the dive team and the submersible work together and increase the productivity of the team’s ability to gather data the researcher needs, but cannot get on their own.
“That’s really the goal. Having a submersible go underwater is fantastic, but it’s not really that unique. Other people can do that too, but there are limitations of what can actually get accomplished. By being able to pair technical divers with the sub, that’s a level of capabilities that’s never been achieved, ever, so it’s pretty exciting,” said Kincaid.
Although the dive team and the submersible were not able to meet up on the bottom due to visibility issues, both teams were successful in finding oculina coral rubble, gathering samples, and taking photographs and video. Some of the samples the divers gathered for Voss included: oculina rubble, sponges, black corral, and little fan-like corrals. These samples allow researchers to create a baseline, or compare it to one they already have, on the condition of these reefs. By studying the samples researchers hope to gain information on why the reef is degrading, and hopefully find solutions on how to stop any further damage.
“Knowing what’s there and having good precision about the biodiversity that’s present at different locations and then tracking how that potentially fluctuates naturally, or changes over time in response to a stressor, is necessary to develop plans so that we can react to what’s changing in the environment,” said Voss, “and protect those resources and those ecosystem services, that we as an economy, and we as a general population want to have.”
Ultimately the goal of the expedition is to create more stringent protections that can be realistically enforced for this area so the oculina coral habitat can have a chance to heal itself over time. Project Baseline is working to do this by helping researchers, like Voss, document the changes occurring underwater.
“It is about combining science with public outreach, because alone, science just won’t get it done,” said Kincaid. “We have to exploit the ability to see it. Just those eyeballs on it can change the game.”
In the future Project Baseline will continue working with Harbor Branch to assess coral reef health. “Now we are going to be working both on these oculina reefs, and planning for long term collaboration to assess coral habitats and vulnerable reef ecosystems, in areas of the Bahamas, potentially Cuba, the Gulf of Mexico, and beyond to directly align Project Baseline goals with Harbor Branch’s goals going forward,” said Voss.
Story Submitted by Amanda White
Image by Pilar Barrera
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