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NCCOS Research Project

Understanding Coral Ecosystem Connectivity in the Gulf of Mexico from Pulley Ridge to the Florida Keys

Primary Contact(s): kimberly.puglise@noaa.gov
This project began in September 2011 and was completed in February 2018

We are investigating the role that the mesophotic reefs of Pulley Ridge (off the southwest coast of Florida) may play in replenishing key fish species, such as grouper and snapper, and other organisms in the downstream reefs of the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas. Because of the well-documented decline of Florida’s reefs, it is important to identify, protect, and manage sources of larvae that can help sustain Florida’s reef ecosystems and the tourism economy that depends on it.

Why We Care
The coral reef ecosystems of the southeast United States provide habitat, food, and shelter to hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates. Their economic role in supporting our commercial fisheries, tourism, and recreational industries is also considerable. In addition to their aesthetic value, coral reefs provide structural buffers from storms and currents along the highly populated southeast Florida coast. Observations of relatively healthy deeper reefs, also referred to as mesophotic coral ecosystems, on Pulley Ridge have opened up questions as to the ecological role they may play in the replenishment of shallow and other mesophotic coral ecosystems, such as in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas. In an era of rapid coastal ocean changes, it is important to understand the degree of connectivity between Pulley Ridge, a comparatively healthy coral ecosystem, and other coral ecosystems located downstream.

What We Are Doing
We are studying the Pulley Ridge ecosystem to determine its potential connectivity to other coral ecosystems, as part of our objectives to develop new strategies for managing and protecting shallow and mesophotic coral ecosystems. Both population-level (genetic) and community-level (ecosystem) connectivity is being investigated. The research spans an array of disciplines, including the physical characteristics of the region (physical oceanography and biological modeling), the biology and ecology of the resident species (population genetics, population dynamics, and community structure), the economic valuation of ecosystem services (e.g., fisheries) that Pulley Ridge supports, and a cost-benefit analysis of specific management alternatives (bio-economics).

A unique aspect of our project is the collaboration of federal, state, and nongovernmental stakeholders to help guide outputs and ensure their utility for resource managers. The results of this study will not only provide a better understanding of the underlying processes that regulate Pulley Ridge and whether Pulley Ridge helps sustain the coral reef communities in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas, but also help determine if the area would benefit from further protection.

This work is part of the Regional Ecosystem Prediction Program: Integrated Ecosystem Research. It is led by Robert Cowen, University of Miami, and represents a collaboration of more than thirty scientists at ten different universities and two federal laboratories (NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and Southeast Fisheries Science Center) pooling their expertise through NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami in coordination with the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Florida Atlantic University.

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources, in direct support of NOS priorities, offices, and customers, and to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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1305 East West Highway, Rm 8110
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Phone: (240) 533-0300 / Fax: (301) 713-4353
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