Nancy Foster NOAA Ship wooden name plate and bridge deck. Credit: Erika Koontz
After stepping off the Nancy Foster onto sweet, solid ground in Key West, Florida in the second week of June, I thought that that was the last time I would see that ship, the crew, and the glorious sunsets. Little did I know that five weeks later I would be given the opportunity to board the ship again in her home port of Charleston, South Carolina for my second cruise.
Far different from the NF 15-04 mission, this cruise will be occurring off the coast of South Carolina, with the main objectives being: conduct broad-scale geophysical surveys of the coastal and continental shelf regions in South Carolina waters, map water column biomass of fishes and other pelagic organisms to relate to seafloor habitats, gather ground-truth data via drop-camera surveying, perform maintenance on an offshore buoy, and process ocean water samples for microplastics. To help complete these objectives, sidescan sonar (SSS), a sub-bottom profiler, and multibeam (MBES) sonar systems will be used to continuously map the seafloor bottom for bathymetry and backscatter layers. This mission is a cooperative one between the Beaufort NOAA lab, Coastal Carolina University and Cape Fear Technical College, and each organization is effectively handling one or two of the goals a piece.
Myself and the Beaufort lab scientists will be primarily handling the small-boat drop-camera work to gather the imagery and video used for ground-truthing the MBES/ SSS surveys. The latter is exactly what I coordinated whilst on my first cruise in the Florida Keys, except all of the drop-camera work was done from the main deck of the ship instead of from the small boats, so working in the small boats will be a new and exciting challenge. Much of the seafloor bottom is predicted to be unconsolidated sediment with some areas sparsely colonized by invertebrates, but is expected to yield some areas of hardbottom, e.g. bedrock, habitat. Much less diverse than a coral reef ecosystem of the Florida Keys, the predicted habitat distributions are expected to contain fewer species of invertebrates and vertebrates, but still yields important scientific data especially considering that this seafloor is heavily used by fishermen and has high potential for offshore energy exploration.
Through the MBES surveys, we hope to find exposed bedrock and/or bedrock covered by a thin sand veneer because bedrock is a marker for essential fish habitat. Bedrock provides a hard surface for colonization by invertebrates, and once there is an established community of invertebrates, there is ample opportunity and a better chance for the advancement of larger organisms, like fish, to also inhabit the area. The bedrock that lies underneath sand and mud is just as important as the exposed bedrock because the unconsolidated sediment that shields it from view can be moved away via natural oceanographic current flows and transform it into exposed bedrock. The ultimate goal of this study is to locate essential fish habitat, exposed or hidden bedrock formations, and provide ample research and information to protect the area and support future essential fish habitat studies. The research will also support the Southeast Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) in their review of management measures for their region. Since the Southeast Atlantic coast of the United States is a hotspot of recreational and commercial use from fisheries, offshore energy developers, domestic and international maritime traffic, it is critically important to understand the current distribution of seafloor habitats to understand their sensitivity to current levels of human activity and to make ample predictions about how changes in the ecosystems, caused naturally or anthropologically, would affect the regional ecosystem and economy.
One of many sunsets seen while aboard the Nancy Foster. Credit: Erika Koontz