Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Project and Aetobatus narinari

For the summer of 2015, I will be living in Morehead City, NC and working at the NOAA Beaufort Lab in Beaufort, NC on a deepwater habitat GIS mapping project focused on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. As an adjunct part of the summer, I will be spending my second week aboard the Nancy Foster, a NOAA Research Vessel in the FKNMS during a variety of benthic habitat sampling through conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) operations. For the rest of my 10 weeks, I will be stationed in Beaufort, working in the lab on Piver’s Island, seen aerially below.



The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contains 2,900 square miles of coral reef and soft-sediment habitats in the southernmost extension of U.S. waters. A member of a 14 sanctuary system, it is one of the largest. Designated in 1990 for fear that the coral reef habitats and species diversity would continue to decline due to oil exploration plans and coastal anthropogenic influences, the sanctuary was designated along with a handful of marine protected areas.

Follow this link (sanctuaryzoneboundaries) to see a high resolution image of the FKNMS boundary, along with the many other designations that lie within the sanctuary. If that connection does not work, try this link: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/fknms_map/sanctuaryzoneboundaries.pdf

A National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) designation offers numerous benefits to the ecosystem and surrounding human population through its recognition that it is an environmentally sensitive and economically important area. NMS programs draft boundaries of the proposed sanctuary area and also construct a public information center close to the sanctuary with facts about the region and why it was designated. The NMS program was created and is governed by NOAA, and they are using this two-pronged passive and assertive approach of education and boundary designation in an effort to preserve these areas through educated management and also have the public come to realize how the health of these regions positively affects their lives.

Realistically, a NMS designation offers no protection for a region unless it is specifically designated as a ‘no-take’ or a ‘research-only’ zone. It is unfortunately really difficult to obtain those designations because of the strong economic connections many of these zones have. For example, the Dry Tortugas National Park, which partially overlaps part of the FKNMS boundary, recently extended boundaries to include 96 square nautical miles in two regions known as Sherwood Forest and Riley’s Hump (respectively known as Tortugas North and Tortugas South). After years of delaying the designation as a no-take zone, scientists, NOAA, and the National Park Service were successful in creating these two areas, but only after years of research, GIS mapping of the bathymetry, unique habitat classifications, and fish aggregation studies. Simply put, it requires a lot of research and certainty that these areas that are proposed as being protected require many years to pass through legislation. From my short experience in the Beaufort Lab, I’ve observed that it is very difficult to convince people to conserve a resource if your argument is not rock-solid. For this reason, I’ve realized that conservation and environmental protection legislation advances slowly because there is a lot of opposition for economic and political reasons, and because there is still so much that we do not know about the environment.

The project that I will be working on directly deals with the FKNMS and in filling in the data gaps. Right now, much of the deep water (>20 meters) within the sanctuary is unknown, where no one is fully aware of the bathymetry and habitat types. Satellite imagery and aerial photography does not penetrate water readily, and will only extend to 20 meters or less, which leaves a huge percentage of the habitat in the FKNMS largely unknown. The sanctuary boundary was really just thrown onto the map in hopes that it covered all of the coral reef in U.S. waters, but no one really knows. To obtain bathymetry for the deepwater, LiDAR and SoNAR are used, but these techniques are expensive. Complete bathymetry for the sanctuary has been long-coming for this reason, and habitat mapping has taken even longer because the photic zone extends to only 200 feet, and these habitats are much deeper than that. Clear images and video are necessary to interpret the bathymetry and ultimately classify it into habitat zones. To work on creating a comprehensive map of shallow water (

In addition to learning and exposing myself to the literature of the FKNMS and the nature of the project in these first few days, I’ve toured the lab and met many of the scientists and fellow interns, who were nothing but friendly. The facility is old, but there is a lot of current and important research occurring, and everyone is eager to discuss the relevance of their research. While walking around the facility with my mentor Don, we happened upon a spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) snuffling for oysters at the dock. Don, being an ichthyologist, was incredibly surprised and excited to discover it here. He’s never seen one in this area, not that they are not here, but usually the southern stingray is the commonly seen species. I’m hopeful that this rare sighting is a prediction that my experiences here will be unusually great and that I’ll offer something unique to the lab.



For next week, expect the topic of discussion to be a re-cap of my cruise in the FKNMS aboard the NOAA Research Vessel the Nancy Foster.


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