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#06-223 August 21, 2006

Ocean Exploration Research Underway

A two-year federally funded study to assess reef fish habitats as important spawning areas is underway off the coast of South Carolina.

Biologists and geologists with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Coastal Carolina University and Scripps Institute of Oceanography will use high resolution multi-beam and side scan sonar to produce detailed maps of important fish habitats. The researchers are focusing on mapping areas along the outer continental shelf, in particular a reef that spans the South Carolina coast at a depth of 200 feet, from the North Carolina border south to Georgia. They will also look at the upper shelf of the continental slope and will map areas at depths as great as 2,000 feet.

“Mapping the distribution of the reef fish and their habitats is an important step in recognizing their complex habitat and determining why reef fish choose these areas to live, feed and spawn,” said George Sedberry, DNR senior marine scientist and principal investigator on the project.. “The shelf-edge reef is a particularly important spawning ground, and we don’t fully understand what characteristics make this reef so attractive to spawning fishes.”

Currently, many of the known spawning sites for these economically important fish, including tilefish, snowy grouper, red grouper and gray triggerfish, are found in proposed Marine Protected Areas, which are being proposed by federal fishery management agencies as areas where bottom fishing will not be allowed. A broader understanding of these topographical areas is one of the primary goals of the research, which will assist with sound fishery management decisions and plans. Maps of areas surrounding the Marine Protected Areas will also be configured, so that researchers can determine the distribution of habitats and associated reef fishes in relation to proposed closed areas. These maps will help evaluate the effectiveness of the regulations in protecting economically valuable species off South Carolina.

The multi-disciplinary approach to the project will use sonar mapping of features found on the shelf floor to analyze why the sites are attractive for the reef fish. Features to be mapped found include deepwater coral reefs, rocky reefs, reefs constructed up by worms that build hard carbonate tubes, and depressions and burrows formed by nest-building and burrowing fish.

“The sonar mapping will help to produce habitat maps for the region,” Sedberry said, “and will provide high resolution images of these areas and the features that are essential fish habitats.”

Findings will be used in the development of an Internet map server where researchers and fishery managers can examine maps of fish habitats. Also, the research will be used to develop classroom materials for incorporating current local research into lesson plans for science teachers to use within their classrooms. The educational material developed from the project will allow teachers to instruct students about important features of the ocean floor, species of fish and habitats found off of their own coast.

This research is being funded by the Office of Ocean Exploration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as part of a larger effort to explore and learn about poorly known habitats in the deep ocean off the U.S. coast, and to make such knowledge available to the public.

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