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NCCOS Research Project

Capacity Building for Design and Analysis of Fishery-independent Surveys of Reef fishes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

This project began in September 2015 and is projected to be completed in August 2017

Over 50 species of reef fish are captured by commercial and recreational fishermen in the U.S. Caribbean. Many of these species use reef habitats that are deeper than 35 meters. Local managers are concerned about whether these species are being fished sustainably. However, they have little information about these species in areas deeper than 35 meters. We seek to fill that gap by developing a spatial framework to monitor reef fish and their habitats deeper than 35 meters.

Why We Care
In 2015, NCCOS partnered with the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center to design a spatial framework and develop the capacity to monitor fish and corals from 35 to 450 meters (m) in the U.S. Caribbean. In coral reef ecosystems, fishery-independent (FI) monitoring surveys have been increasing in importance over the past decade. FI surveys obtain the same abundance and size data as fishery-dependent catch sampling programs, but with greater statistical rigor. This rigor allows managers to better estimate the structure of fish communities and better understand how different species use habitats across the seascape. This type of information is key for managers to design and evaluate fish conservation strategies (e.g., no-take areas).

Fisheries-independent surveys are already occurring in shallow environments (<35 m) as part of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program. There are plans to extend these surveys to coral reefs deeper than 35 m because several fish species use habitats above and below this depth threshold. To do so, the spatial framework used in shallow environments needs to extend to deeper areas. This requires developing a sampling plan for these deeper areas based on different seafloor habitat types. Using habitat type to divide the seascape produces more accurate estimates of fish and coral abundances, while minimizing the cost of collecting samples in the field.

What We Are Doing
This project will support the management of reef fish and associated habitats in the U.S. Caribbean. It will do so by extending the current reef monitoring framework to depths of 450 m by:

  • Assimilating existing benthic mapping and biological monitoring data.
  • Developing methods to characterize benthic habitats based on depth, substrate composition (hardbottom, softbottom), hardbottom patchiness (relative amount of hardbottom versus softbottom), and other measures of seafloor complexity that influence the distribution of reef fish.
  • Developing a spatial framework for fishery-independent reef fish surveys in deeper habitats (>35m) in the U.S. Caribbean using existing benthic habitat information in GIS. The spatial framework will be a fishnet (i.e., a spatial grid made up of squares of equal size), and will include descriptions of benthic habitats within each square. The amount of information will depend on the amount of existing information in a square.

After the initial spatial framework is developed, we will also hold technical workshops in the U.S. Caribbean to develop partnerships with on-island partner agencies and universities interested in reef fish monitoring. The first workshop will focus on the statistical design of FI surveys in coral reef ecosystems and will be held in Puerto Rico. The second workshop, also to be held in Puerto Rico, will focus on methods for estimating and analyzing population abundance indices from FI surveys. It will be geared toward a select group of scientists, who represent the principal on-island agencies and universities involved in FI reef fish surveys. Potential partners include the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Puerto Rico’s Departmento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales, University of the Virgin Islands, and the University of Puerto Rico (Mayagüez).

Deliverables will include:

  1. a final technical report of study activities and findings at the project’s conclusion;
  2. a GIS spatial framework for conducting FI surveys of reef fish to 450 m depths;
  3. course materials for workshops; and
  4. one or two peer-reviewed journal papers detailing the development of novel methods and algorithms developed during the project.

Regions of Study: Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands

Additional Resources

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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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