NOAA research expedition will map fish spawning habitats west of Key West

July 24, 2012

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Karrie Carnes
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Scientists from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and partner agencies will depart Key West Thursday aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster to map fish spawning sites between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Data collected on this 10-day research cruise will enhance scientific understanding of fish spawning locations, as well as fish movements in and around the sanctuary’s Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

“During the recent public regulatory review, many stakeholders said that we need to understand and protect our fishing spawning areas better,” said Sean Morton, sanctuary superintendent. “The scientific results of this cruise will help inform the public and guide management decisions as we continue to look at sanctuary marine zones and regulations.”

Mutton Snapper Spawning

Mutton snapper pawing.Download (26 MB, QuickTime movie)

Video credit: Chris Parsons.

On the expedition, scientists will use multibeam and splitbeam sonar to provide high resolution maps of the seafloor, while fishery acoustic sonar simultaneously searches for fish, in order to determine what different spawning sites have in common. Divers will conduct visual surveys to validate the sonar scans, and use remotely operated vehicles to document observations at deeper depths.

The sanctuary’s marine zoning and regulatory review is a multi-year, public process to determine whether existing sanctuary boundaries, regulations, and marine zones are adequate to address threats to marine resources, and if new or expanded protection is needed to better address these threats.

Divers will also service and redeploy 74 acoustic receivers in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Dry Tortugas National Park and surrounding area. The network of receivers is used to detect acoustically tagged fish when they pass within range. It was instrumental in documenting the successes of both the reserve and the national park’s Research Natural Area, including the return of a historic mutton snapper spawning group at the reserve’s Riley’s Hump area. The receiver array and acoustic tag program is managed by NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Mutton snapper aggregation

Mutton snapper spawning] Mutton snapper were documented gathering and spawning on Riley's Hump in the sanctuary's Tortugas Ecological Reserve in 2009. Credit Chris Parsons.

Mutton snapper were documented gathering and spawning on Riley's Hump in the sanctuary's Tortugas Ecological Reserve in 2009. Credit: Chris Parsons.

View high-resolution version.

Research cruise participants are from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the College of Charleston. Susan Kaiser, a seventh-grade science teacher from Reno, Nev., will be participating in the cruise as part of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program.

Support for the cruise is being provided by NOAA’s Ocean Service. Daily photo updates from scientists on the expedition will be posted on the sanctuary’s Facebook page,

The Dry Tortugas region, located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, contains diverse and nationally-significant underwater habitats, including seagrass beds and deep coral reef habitats. In 2001, the sanctuary designated the 151-square nautical mile Tortugas Ecological Reserve to protect habitat and biodiversity, allowing the area to evolve naturally with minimal human influences. Fishing and anchoring are prohibited throughout the reserve, and boating and diving is prohibited in the reserve’s southern section without a permit.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral reef, hard bottom, sea grass meadows, mangrove communities and sand flats. NOAA and the state of Florida manage the sanctuary. Visit us online at or on Facebook at

The 187-ft. NOAA Ship Nancy Foster is part of the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join NOAA on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.