Exploring the sights and sounds of a deepwater coral marine protected area off Florida

Port Canaveral, Fla. April 29, 2003-- From April 29 to May 8 scientists and students will be exploring the deepwater coral reefs off Florida known as the Oculina Banks and stretching 30 miles offshore from Ft. Pierce to Cape Canaveral. This remote area includes the East Coast's first Marine Protected Area (MPA) which is a model for efforts underway to create new MPAs throughout southeast U.S. waters and the Gulf of Mexico. The team will use a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to study the current health of coral on the banks, which has been decimated in places by commercial trawling, and the condition of the MPA relative to surrounding areas. It will also test an acoustic monitoring system that could one day be used to monitor fish behavior on the reefs.

The mission will involve scientists from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic Institution (HBOI), NOAA Fisheries, College of Charleston, and Florida State University. The general public and students will be able to follow the expedition through daily logs posted to a website and a webcast from the ship.

At the Oculina Banks over the past thousand years, the ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa, has constructed a series of over one hundred pinnacles, mounds, and ridges, in water depths of 150 to 300 feet underneath the Gulf Stream. These features can be as large as 100 feet high and 1,000 feet wide and are a favored target of shrimp trawlers as well as sport and recreational fishers hunting for reef fish and pelagic fish such as tuna.

The diversity of life on the Oculina coral reefs is similar to that of shallow tropical coral reefs. They support dense and diverse populations of more than 70 fish species and are critical breeding grounds for commercially important populations of gag and scamp grouper, snappers, black sea bass, jacks, tuna, giant sunfish, manta rays, and several shark species. The Banks' location at the southern end of the South Atlanti

Contact: Mark Schrope
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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