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2010 Aquarius Mission - If Reefs could talk
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Aquarius 2010 Expedition Blog:
Oct. 13, 2010

By Sarah Fangman, Associate Science Coordinator for the Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Region - Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary

inspecting the kayak
Lionfish on conch reef. Click here for a larger image. (Photo: Chris Taylor)

Dr. Steve Gittings and I have been conducting surveys as part of the "Long Term Monitoring of Biodiversity and Cryptic Species" project (more information about this project).

To date, we have conducted six days of diving on this project, and are nearly finished with data collection. We've done 30 dives and spent over 15 hours underwater. We have numerous tasks to complete as part of this project, but my favorite is the brittle star survey. It is a very simple task (turn over 100 pieces of rubble and look for brittle stars), but it is always an exciting surprise to see what is living below the rubble.

 Brian Degan captures lionfish at Aquarius - Brian Degan captures invasive lionfish near Northeast weigh station at Aquarius Reef Base
Brian Degan captures lionfish at Aquarius - Brian Degan captures invasive lionfish near Northeast weigh station at Aquarius Reef Base. Click here for a larger image. (Photo: Chris Taylor)
I enjoy these surveys because it allows me the time to get my face way down on the sea floor and look for the little creatures that are only observed if you can get down close. I always feel a bit sheepish pulling up rubble from the seafloor, as tiny creatures are typically hiding beneath. I imagine it would be like an alien scientist grabbing my house and pulling it into the sky and looking inside and then putting it back in my yard...not a very pleasant experience. I try to gently replace the rubble back where I find it. We have found very few brittle stars this year (only 3 animals in over 200 surveys). Dr. Gittings has been doing brittle star surveys only since 2000, but compared to older data, it appears that populations have declined in recent years. We are still trying to understand what this means in terms of the health of the reef, but it is clear that things are changing.

inspecting the kayak
A Brittle Star. Click here for a larger photo. (Photo: NOAA/ONMS)

Joining us in the field today were Brian Degan and Chris Taylor, who wanted to explore the area as a potential site to conduct their surveys. When beginning our operations, we tie the boat to a mooring buoy near our research site (this prevents us from having to anchor, which can damage the coral). Once we splash into the clear blue water, we have to swim to the site where we are surveying - and it is a decent swim, so we are getting our exercise! The benefit of this transit is that it also allows us the opportunity to observe the reef as we pass over.

Today we spotted four invasive lionfish as we swam to our survey site. Lionfish have no known predators in the western Atlantic and have an appetite for commercially and ecologically important fish species. Because these fish are invasive, Brian and Chris attempted to capture these fish (note: divers are encouraged to receive training on how to remove lionfish safely. In the highly protected "no take" areas of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where fishing is not allowed, a permit is required to remove lionfish). Brian and Chris have worked extensively with lionfish in North Carolina, and have experience handling these venomous fish. They were only able to capture one of the fish, however. Here in the coral reef environment, there are numerous crevices and hiding places for the lionfish, making them difficult to capture. The good news is that these fish don't typically travel far, so it is likely that when we return tomorrow, they will be near where we left them, and we can try once again to remove them from the reef.

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