After the Hurricanes

Scientists embark on biennial census with high-tech map, deeper dives

VIRGINIA KEY, FL -- A team of 38 research divers from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, NOAA Fisheries, the State of Florida, the National Park Service, and the National Undersea Research Center will celebrate the Tortugas Ecological Reserve's fifth birthday of protected status in true scientific fashion. Employing even deeper mixed-gas dives and working from a new high-tech, high-resolution LIDAR (laser-based) topographic map, they will embark on their biennial census to measure how well the protected status is helping the Florida Keys ecosystem rebound from decades of overfishing. Reporters are invited to spend a day on the R/V Spree with the scientists to learn more about this unique process.

WHAT: First-hand observation and interviews with field scientists aboard a special marine research and diving vessel, including an opportunity to snorkel with the scientists (snorkeling equipment not provided).

WHO: Space is limited to just 12 reporters. First come, first served. Media contacts listed below.

WHEN: June 21, 2006 (Reporters will depart Key West at 8 a.m. via ferry for a ~2-hour ride to that day's dive location and the R/V Spree, and return to Key West at ~5 p.m.)

WHERE: The dive locations are in the Dry Tortugas National Park and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. Reporters are advised to overnight in Key West the night before to ensure they can take the early morning ferry.

BACKGROUND: The Dry Tortugas, a remote area about 70 miles west of Key West, is known for its extensive coral reefs, fish, sharks, lobsters, and other marine life. In 2000, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was allowed to set aside no-take areas, forming the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which is being considered for expansion because of the critical state of overfishing in the region.

In August 2005, the Florida governor and cabinet unanimously approved to implement a management plan for a no-take marine reserve in the Dry Tortugas National Park. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission concurred in early February 2006 with the proposed National Park Service regulations related to marine fishing in the park. The park's marine reserve, coupled with that in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is designed to protect precious coral reefs, fishery, and cultural resources, and to ensure sustainability of intensely exploited regional reef fisheries resources benefiting the Tortugas, the Florida Keys and beyond.

Southern Florida coral reefs generated an estimated 91,000 jobs and US$6 billion in economic activity in 2005. These ecosystem goods and services, however, are threatened by increased exploitation and environmental changes from a rapidly growing regional human population.

Dr. Jerry Ault, associate professor of marine biology and fisheries will lead a team of researchers to monitor ongoing population changes and observe the effects of hurricanes on the coral reef habitat in the Reserve. Ault and his team conduct biennial fish abundance surveys on the more than 220 species that comprise the Tortugas' reef fish community in the Florida Keys. This year, his team will document changes in fish abundance and habitat quality in a region that got hit by six major hurricanes since the last survey in June 2004. By statistically comparing this year's findings to previous survey data collected since 1999, scientists can determine what effects two years of intense hurricanes have on the marine environment. Collecting scientific data on a regular basis is imperative to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem and to provide sustainable fishery management recommendations. The Tortugas region plays a critical role in the health of the overall Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem thus making this study important to understanding the overall functioning of tropical marine habitats.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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