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Seafloor Characterization of the U.S. Caribbean

Biogeography Branch, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Scientists Explore Waters in the U.S. Caribbean

Project areas for the 2009 mapping effort off Vieques.

This map shows the project areas for the 2009 mapping effort off Vieques.

From March 27 through April 3, NOS scientists will embark on a scientific mission to study the coral reefs and fish habitats off the coast of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

While aboard the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, researchers from the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Biogeography Branch will use multibeam sonar to collect high-resolution ocean depth information (bathymetry), as well as information about the hardness and roughness of the ocean floor. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will capture under­water video imagery of sea-floor habitats.

Image of a barrel sponge and spiny lobster observed during ROV operations at Tourmaline Bank.

Image of a barrel sponge and spiny lobster observed during ROV operations at Tourmaline Bank.

Scientists will be able to plot collected sonar (physical) and video (biological) data on a sea-floor map, integrate the data with coral ecosystem and fish census data, and investigate relationships between species and their habitats. Developing these links between physical and biological information will allow scientists to create “habitat utilization models” needed to support natural resource management in the federal and territorial waters of Puerto Rico

This type of benthic (bottom) habitat mapping and characterization is a fundamental component of ecosystem-based coral reef management because it integrates a variety of information to define the extent, nature, and health of these ecosystems. Without accurate maps and detailed information about the sea floor, resource managers lack data needed to make informed decisions.

Traditionally, benthic habitat mapping in the U.S. Caribbean has involved technologies such as aerial photography and satellite imagery. While these technologies are effective for mapping the distribution and status of shallow-water coral reef ecosystems, their use is limited to the depths at which sea-floor features are visible in the imagery, which is typically 30 meters (98 feet). Use of multibeam sonar and an ROV will allow the scientists to create a nearly seamless habitat map from the shoreline to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet)water depth.

NOAA is surveying the area at the request of commonwealth agencies and local scientists, who have determined it to be of special ecological significance. The overall effort, now in its sixth year, is sponsored by NOAA, the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, and the Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Archived mission updates are available at: