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2010 Aquarius Mission - If Reefs could talk
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Aquarius 2010 Expedition Blog:
Oct. 16, 2010

By Peter Auster
Marine Ecologist Department of Marine Sciences and Northeast Underwater Research Technology & Education Center
University of Connecticut

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Angelfish, butterflyfish and wrasses feed on sponge. Click here for a larger image. (Photo: NOAA/UCONN)

The name of our expedition here at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Aquarius Reef Base is "If Reefs Could Talk". Well, while I was diving today I think I heard one whisper to me. Yeah ... a reef whispered to me. How do reefs actually "talk"? I can't answer that question because it was just a whisper and coming from behind me, my blind spot while wearing a dive mask. It could be narcosis, or too much oxygen in the breathing gas, or just hallucinations from lack of sleep after 10 days of diving, but I swear I heard one speak as I swam by ... and this is what it said: "WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING TO ME??"


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A loggerhead turtle. Click here for a larger image. (Photo: NOAA/UCONN)

Now I really didn't see its lips move, and how could you see a reef's lips move anyway? Like a mustache on humans, there are algae and soft corals in the way. Back in the 1950s and earlier, Conch Reef was dominated by hard corals. There were lots of big snappers and groupers that fed on big fish and invertebrates. There were lots of herbivores that kept algae in check and allowed hard corals to dominate the reef. Then we started to love our reefs too much. More and more people moved into the Florida Keys watershed and changes in water quality led to degraded reefs. Overfishing reduced the number of large predators and released populations of fishes and invertebrates that munch coral. Then the animals that eat algae died of disease or were overfished. The reef hardly looks like pictures taken when I got interested in marine ecology as a kid.


 Rockfish and trumpetfish cooperate in hunting.
Rock hind and trumpetfish cooperate in hunting. Click here for a larger image. (Photo: NOAA/UCONN)

We have been studying group foraging and behavior webs of reef fishes for the last 10 days on this expedition. I have been working with a group of graduate and undergraduate students diving from surface boats while a colleague and one of his graduate students do the same while diving from the Aquarius undersea laboratory. While we are all certainly privileged to have the funds and resources to do this work, we wonder if we are just working on a remaining fragment of a highly altered ecosystem? What did this place look like 50, 100, 200 years ago? If we learn how this community of animals works now, will this knowledge help us restore the reef to some former and healthier state? Will we be able to use this understanding to predict and better manage reefs in the future? Or are we simply documenting the continued decline in the ecological health of reefs across the globe and the loss of diversity that I have witnessed in my lifetime? As Rachael Carson, a marine biologist and famous author once wrote: "The choice, after all, is ours to make."

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