Ocean Discoveries: 2012 Nancy Foster Mapping Mission/Day 2 – The Northeast Great Reserve and the Science Team

By Antares Ramos Álvarez, Entry 2

The Northeast Great Reserve Overview
The Northeast Great Reserve is Puerto Rico’s first marine corridor, established by the PR Government as a protected on June 30th of 2011, covering around 9,932 acres of land and 65,582 acres of marine habitat (see image below). It connects three previously existing marine protected areas (MPAs), two of which are part of Puerto Rico priority areas (Arrecifes La Cordillera and Canal Luis Peña).

Aerial photo of the Keys in the Northeast Great Reserve. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

The MPA extends to the north up the 9 nautical miles (nm) of territorial sea (Puerto Rico has jurisdiction over the 9nm from shore, beyond that they are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, up to the 200nm economic exclusive zone), and connects the island Puerto Rico to the western coast of Culebra island.  This area is managed by Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the local government agency with the responsibility of protecting and conserving the island’s natural resources.

Map of Northeast Great Reserve. Credit: Puerto Rico DNER

The Northeast Great Reserve  is home to a vast array of coral species (such as the endangered Elkhorn coral – Acropora palmate-and Staghorn coral -Acropora cervicornis) as well as fish species important for commercial fisheries that are vital for the ecosystem balance of the reefs in the area.

Elkhorne Coral in the Northeast Great Reserve, Puerto Rico. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

One of the reasons for designating this are as an MPA is to provide a large contiguous protected corridor that is an important location for fish and coral larval propagation. A larva is a fertilized egg of a fish or a coral.  Larvae tend to be 1-2mm and can swim short distances, but are more often moved by ocean currents.  Larvae can be carried in the current from hours to several weeks before they are mature enough to settle onto the ocean floor and start a new colony and continue building a reef.  To maintain recruitment and resilience of corals, it’s important to ensure that the areas where larvae settled have no or low human impact, thus the importance of having an MPA ecological corridor.

Staghorn Coral in the Northeast Great Reserve. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

The northeast coast of Puerto Rico is anarea of high recreational activity: weekend boaters, scuba divers, one-day cruises among other fun activities.  These can many times stress out the marine resources.  Part of protecting and conserving resources is to know where each type of activity should and should not take place.  A good example of this is how anchoring in coral reefs harm the ecosystem, mainly by killing the corals and eventually interfering with the balance thus affecting the fish populations as well.  A pilot case of anchor damage to reefs is Icacos, an island within the Northeast Great Reserve that was completely surrounded by corals about 50 years ago.  In present times the coral presence is minimal, the reef has resided, and there’s only sand left where the boats tend to visit.  This effect is hard to revert so our efforts should go in doing the best we can to avoid this happening in other areas.  But before we know what areas need special attention within the corridor, we need to learn what is there.  That’s what brings the R/V Nancy Foster to these waters.  To further understand what is here, adding it up with investigations local scientists have been carrying out for years, and continue adding to what is known by directing future research and conservation initiatives.

image of water with "island" in the background

Trash dumping ground in Culebra which is adjacent to the Northeast Great Reserve. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

Land based sources of pollution (LBSP) has been found to be one of the main threats to corals in this area (in essence, sediments, chemicals, sewage, raw material that originates from the land and ends up in the sea).  Watershed approach management planning and actions are needed in order to maintain an ecologically diverse and resilient coral reef ecosystem and the reserve’s long-term vitality, in addition to understanding the dynamics of the marine protected area.

coral head in murky aqua colored water

Example of coral colony covered by sedimentation at the water’s edge below the dumping ground pictured above.  Credit: NOAA/CRCP


The Science Team
So who’s part of the mission and what do they do when not on a mission?  Here we are in the “dry lab” (more about this coming soon!).  We have a range of expertise of scientists across NOAA, academia, students, NGO’s, and the private sector who we bring together to support a full range of science activities around the clock, 24hrs a day.

2012 Nancy Foster Mapping Mission Science Team (Left to right: Tim Battista, Glenn Taylor, Lance Horn, Mark Blankenship, Laura Kracker, Antares Ramos, Gustav Kagensten, Mike Stetcher, Bryan Costa, Chris Taylor, Norah Eddy, Will Sautter, Krystina Scott). Credit: NOAA/NCCOS/CCMA

Name of scientist, role on ship, what they do when not on a mission.

  1. Tim Battista (Chief Scientist) – Oceanographer, NCCOS/NOAA
  2. Glenn Taylor (ROV Operation) – ROV Pilot/Technician, University of North Carolina Wilmington
  3. Lance Horn (ROV Operation) – Undersea Vehicle Program Operations Director, University of North Carolina Wilmington
  4. Mark Blankenship (Hydrographer) – Assistant IOCM Coordinator, NOAA
  5. Laura Kracker (Fisheries acoustics and mapping) – Geographer, NCCOS/NOAA
  6. Antares Ramos (Blogger) – Coral Management Liaison and Coastal Specialist for Puerto Rico, OCRM/NOAA
  7. Gustav Kagensten (Backscatter and imagery) – Acoustic Mapping Specialist, NCCOS/NOAA
  8. Mike Stetcher (Hydrographer) – Hydrographer, Sol Mar Hydro, Inc.
  9. Bryan Costa (ROV habitat ground truthing) – Geospatial Scientist, NCCOS/NOAA
  10. Chris Taylor (Fish acoustics and 3D imagery) – Ecologist, NCCOS/NOAA
  11. Norah Eddy (Multi beam and backscatter) – Master’s Student, University of California Santa Barbara
  12. Will Sautter (Backscatter and imagery) – Acoustic Mapping Specialist, NCCOS/NOAA
  13. Krystina Scott (Multibeam) – Geologist, SeaGrant/University of Puerto Rico

Missing in the photo, but will be joining mission soon:

  1. Erik Ebert (Fish acoustics) – Biologist, NCCOS/NOAA
  2. Alicia Clarke (Blogger) – Science Writer, NCCOS/NOAA
  3. Shannon Simpson (Blogger) – Financial Officer, CRCP/NOAA

A Bit of Science: Fish Acoustics
The fish acoustic efforts started today!  The first step for the fish acoustic project is to calibrate the EK-60 split-beam acoustic sonar.  It’s quite simple in theory, but in practice it takes a team of at least five people, two hours and a lot of coordination.

To calibrate the sonar, a solid metal sphere made of tungsten carbide has to be placed precisely underneath the transducer, the sound emitting sensor. The sphere is about the size of a ping pong ball and is stronger and denser than titanium.  We use the tungsten carbide sphere because the metal has a known sound return strength that we use to adjust and calibrate to the signal strength of the sonar. This will allow us to accurately detect and size objects in the water-column such as fish.

Tungsten sphere.  Credit: NOAA/CRCP

The first thing that had to be done was to set up three downriggers off the sides of the ship. These downriggers are actually used for commercial and recreational fishing, but they are perfect for the job because they have a counter which is used to measure how much line we had to reel in or let out. The sphere had to be carefully tied to the end of all three downriggers, using methods done by sailors for centuries. The sphere also has a lead dive weight dangling below it so that the currents under the ship won’t move the sphere while the system is calibrating.

someone reeling in the downrigger to calibrate

Me calibrating downrigger on the port side. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

There were two downriggers on the port (left) side of the ship (Norah Eddy on port forward, Antares Ramos on port aft), and one on the starboard (right) side (Will Sautter). One person operates each downrigger while scientist Chris Taylor and Laura Kracker coordinated the positioning of the sphere underneath the split-beam transducers and the calibration in the dry lab. We were all communicating with each other through handheld radios listening to Chris’s commands from the lab for how much to reel in or let out line.

Norah Eddy (not pictured) calibrating the sonar acoustic rigging on the downrigger.  Credit: NOAA/CRCP

The sphere and weight were lowered down into the water on the port side while the starboard side reeled it in, moving the sphere under the ship. And so began the long and tedious task of Chris trying to get the sonar to find the metal sphere under the ship from the team’s reels.

We started at 0830hrs and went on until 1130hrs.  Once Chris located the sphere, he had to adjust the sonar parameter to each of the three sonar frequencies.

Sonar calibrated, lets go find some fish!  Stay tuned to learn more about how the sonar is used to detect fish.

To see the the Nancy Foster throughout the 2012 mapping mission, visit the NOAA ship tracker site and click on “Enter NOAA’s Ship Tracker link, then scroll down to “NF – Nancy Foster” in the box on the upper right of the screen to see where she is at any given time!

Be sure to visit this blog often for field updates, pictures and videos posted by members of the science team.

This entry was posted in Benthic Mapping, Biogeography Branch, Caribbean, Caribbean Research, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, Coral, Marine Regional Planning, Nancy Foster Exploration, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA's National Ocean Service, Ocean Exploration, Ocean Field Work, Ocean Research, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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