UNDERSEA ROBOTS OFFERS LOOK AT REEFS:
Researchers document rare habitats, delicate as china, being damaged
by fishermen (entered 05/14/03)
The Charlotte Observer
Posted on Sun, May. 11, 2003
OVER THE OCULINA BANKS - The robot
swims along the sandy ocean bottom, with a dozen mismatched eyes
of cameras, lasers and lights searching for the fish and coral that
have been disappearing from this remote spot off the Florida coast.
Some days the robot finds mounds of the rare ivory tree
coral, crumbled into lifeless brown sticks on the ocean floor.
Some days, there are a few signs of the hundreds of
species of fish and marine life that used to make their homes amid
the coral's porcelain branches.
Occasionally, a centuries-old pinnacle of the Oculina
coral still stands, and the robot swims gingerly around it, sending
video and pictures of the habitat back to researchers who are charting
the robot's every movement and observation.
Similar undersea expeditions have allowed researchers
to follow the demise of the Oculina coral reefs, which sit along
the edge of the Florida continental shelf, 30 miles offshore from
Daytona Beach to Fort Pierce.
Scientists say at least 90 percent of the deep-water
live coral cover has been reduced to rubble since the 1970s, primarily
by commercial fishing outfits that drag heavy nets through the coral
in search of shrimp and fish.
"These reefs are incredible resources found nowhere
else on Earth," said John Reed, chief scientist on the expedition
and a coral expert with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in
"Probably the only way to save it is with more
stringent laws and public awareness that this is not something we
can recreate in our lifetime," he said.
By 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Council had protected
about 300 square miles of the Oculina banks, making the reefs the
East Coast's first Marine Protected Area.
Similar efforts in Norway, New Zealand and Tasmania
are protecting other deep-water coral reefs that grow anywhere from
200 to 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface, harboring thousands
of species that use it as a breeding, nursing and feeding ground.
But the rules banning fish nets and anchors have had
little effect, largely because the Oculina reefs are remote and
patrols are costly.
"A small percent of commercial fishermen that are
breaking the rules can do a lot of damage in a very short amount
of time," Reed said. He added that the last shrimp boat caught
damaging the reef in 2001 was fined $15,000 -- probably a fraction
of the worth of that week's catch.
The snowy white branches of the ivory tree coral, which
make up the Oculina banks, grow only about a half-inch each year.
Pinnacles as fragile as china have grown up to 100 feet
tall over centuries. When they're crushed, thousands of crabs, shrimp,
snails, clams and dozens of species of fish are left homeless.
"You can think of them as giant condominiums, housing
projects for small animals," said Les Watling, an oceanography
professor at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in
Walpole, who studies the creatures living deep in the ocean.
Watling said those who destroy the reefs won't be able
to return to the once-rich fishing spot because it will disappear
after the first catch.
"It's obviously foolish and shortsighted to smash
these reefs," he said. "It's on par with cutting down
the ancient redwood forests in California."
But unlike the redwood forests, which are enjoyed by
millions of visitors each year, the Oculina banks can be visited
by only robots and other submersible vehicles.
For that reason, researchers using the robot aboard
the Freedom Star, a NASA ship normally used to retrieve solid rocket
boosters, are working to put together a complete picture or database
describing the reefs.
The project, financed by an $87,000 National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration grant, will help determine whether
federal protection should be expanded for the Oculina Banks past
2004, when the current protections expire.
The robot allows a control room with a handful of researchers
to travel along with it on the ocean floor. It feeds videos and
digital pictures to computer screens, and the images will be enlarged
and played back in slow motion so researchers can observe all the
life that exists around the Oculina banks.
The robot shines two red lasers 10 centimeters apart
so scientists can measure a fish's size. Another device measures
depth, and lights illuminate the ocean floor. And an arm reaches
out to collect tiny samples of coral so scientists can study its
growth and health.
The robot on the 11-day Freedom Star voyage takes about
four two-hour dives a day and has visited Oculina before. It also
has gone through a hole in the Arctic ice and has dived 800 feet
into the Caribbean.
"It (the robot) is really a very good tool for
getting right close to the bottom, to be able to establish what
life is like," said Andy Shepard, the expedition's chief operator
and the associate director of the National Undersea Research Center
at UNC Wilmington.
"We want to fill in all the holes of what's not
known about Oculina, and what we really want to see is a healthy
habitat," he added.
UNCW is among two Carolinas schools participating in
the project. Also involved is the College of Charleston's geology
Name: Andy Shepard