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April 19, 2007

Contact: Ben Sherman
(301) 713-3066 ext. 178

NOAA Leads Research Mission of Puerto Rico’s Underwater Habitats

A joint research mission to explore and characterize near shore habitats within waters in Puerto Rico using a suite of sophisticated seafloor mapping tools is currently underway on board the NOAA ship Nancy Foster. The mission is jointly sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Caribbean Fishery Management Council. Mission results will support natural resource management in federal and territorial waters of Puerto Rico.

Areas targeted for exploration include Mona Island, Monito, and several protected grouper spawning areas along Puerto Rico’s western coast—Bajo de Cico, Abrir La Sierra Bank, and Tourmaline Bank.

"This mission is an important undertaking for NOAA to gain a better understanding of the ecosystem interactions in the coral reef community off Puerto Rico," said John H. Dunnigan, director of NOAA's National Ocean Service. "This project is an excellent example of the integration of research and sharing of resources to meet the needs of modern-day coral reef management – at the local, regional and federal levels."

This marks the fourth year of an ongoing research project by the biogeography team from NOAA Ocean Service's Center for Monitoring and Assessment working in conjunction with local resource agencies and other NOAA offices. Data from the mission will support the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, the Caribbean Coral Reef Institute, NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the Puerto Rican Department of Natural and Environmental Resources by characterizing known spawning habitats for groupers such as the red hind.

These areas are closed seasonally to protect the groupers while they spawn, ensuring more sustainable populations. Multi-beam surveys at Mona Island will document current and historical grouper spawning grounds and will provide bathymetric profiles for coral reef habitats that have been researched by NOAA Fisheries Service scientists for more than 10 years.

Data from the multi-beam surveys will be combined with biological coral ecosystem and fish census data to produce maps of the sea floor topography and habitats. The mission helps NOAA continue to meet its commitment to the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to map moderate depth coral reef ecosystems.

NOAA scientists will explore the type and extent of habitats in selected portions of the project areas using multi-beam sonar and under water video cameras. During the mission scientists will collect high-resolution bathymetry; habitat hardness, and habitat roughness; and complementary video data that will provide information about the characteristics of seafloor coral reef ecosystems.

Daily mission updates will be available at:

Results from previous surveys have mapped and characterized coral reef habitats in the national park and monument waters around St. John and St. Croix, providing previously unavailable details on the bathymetric profiles and biology of moderate to deep coral reef habitats. Video and SCUBA-diver assessments have documented reef fish assemblages inside and outside of the marine reserve areas of the coral reef national monument.

Surveys in 2006 documented conditions, for the Caribbean Fishery Management Council and the United States Virgin Islands Fish and Wildlife Division, at the Grammanik Bank, a shallow area south of St. Thomas which is the spawning grounds of several species of grouper including yellowfin and Nassau. Protection for Nassau grouper spawning habitat is particularly important since it is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Center for Coastal Ocean Science is collaborating with other NOAA program offices including NOAA’s Marine and Aircraft Operations, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Office of Coast Survey, and the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. The Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, the Caribbean Coral Reef Institute, and Solmar Hydro are also a part of the effort. The study is supported by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

The NOAA research ship Nancy Foster, based in Charleston, S.C., is one of a fleet of research and survey vessels used by NOAA to improve understanding of the marine environment. The former Navy vessel was converted in 2002 to conduct a wide variety of coastal oceanographic research projects along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The ship has 17 permanent crewmembers and accommodations for up to 16 scientists. The Nancy Foster began operations in April 2003 and was commissioned on May 10, 2004.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts, and protects.

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