Annual Coral Monitoring Nets 1,000 Pounds of Marine Debris
This summer, scientists from southeast region national marine sanctuaries and University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) Center for Marine Science performed 682 dives to study the health of coral reefs in the middle and upper Florida Keys. Scientists surveyed the density, size, and condition of benthic — or bottom dwelling — coral reef organisms, and measured and removed more than 1,000 pounds of marine debris.
These surveys are part of an ongoing annual monitoring effort which began in the upper Keys in 1998, and Keys-wide in 1999 to document composition and health of coral reef communities inside the sanctuary’s no-take zones and nearby reference sites. This project was made possible through support from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.
Over the course of 23 days in May and June, sanctuary and UNCW biologists surveyed 240 stations, spending an estimated 323 hours underwater between Carysfort and Alligator reefs. Divers counted and measured protected staghorn and elkhorn corals, all other stony corals, urchins, anemones, and selected mollusks, such as Queen conch. Results of these surveys will be compared to previous years, providing insight into changes in the marine environment over time.
Also during their surveys, scientists documented and removed more than 1,000 pounds of debris; 3,280 feet of lobster/crab trap rope; and 1,300 feet of angling gear from the surveyed locations. Derelict fishing gear and marine debris were noted to have injured, entangled, or cause abrasions to bottom dwelling organisms like sea fans, soft corals and sponges. Such gear was also found inside the sanctuary’s no-take zones, where fishing isn’t allowed.
Long-term monitoring programs such as this provide sanctuary managers with a big picture of sanctuary health, how conditions may be changing over time, and how environmental factors may differ inside and outside the marine zones. Having long-term data sets is critical in determining whether marine zones are meeting their intended goals.