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NCCOS Research Project

Developing A Benthic Habitat Map for the Insular Shelf South of St. Thomas and St. John

This project began in October 2014 and is projected to be completed in September 2017

The purpose of this project is to develop a benthic habitat map for uncharacterized mesophotic coral reef ecosystems (30 to 100 m deep) on the South Eastern Puerto Rican (Insular) Shelf. The final map will support the management of essential fish habitats, marine protected areas (MPAs), and priority sites in the U.S. Caribbean.

Why We Care
Mesophotic coral reef ecosystems (MCEs) provide many ecological and economic benefits to nearby islands. They provide valuable ecosystem services related to tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection, and support a variety of marine organisms, including endangered coral and fish species. They are also thought to provide refuge to some shallow-water species whose habitat has undergone profound changes in the last several decades. Like their shallow-water counterparts, MCEs are also increasingly under threat from overharvesting, pollution, coastal development, invasive species, ocean acidification and climate change. In recent years, there has been a greater effort to document MCEs, and collect baseline information about their spatial distributions, compositions and health. This baseline spatial information, including habitat maps, are needed to monitor changes in MCEs, and to develop strategies to mitigate these threats moving forward.

What We Are Doing
We will use existing acoustic datasets and underwater videos to produce maps of MCEs (30 to 100m) on the insular shelf. Existing datasets were collected over the last decade by NOAA NCCOS in partnership with NOAA Office of Coast Survey, NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, the US Geological Survey, the University of the Virgin Islands, USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and the National Park Service (St. John).  Using these datasets, we will develop predictive models depicting the probability that specific substrate and biotic habitat types are present. These individual predictions will be combined into a classified benthic habitat map, describing the distribution of MCEs on the insular shelf.  Additional underwater videos and photos will also be collected to fill in data gaps, and to assess the accuracy of the spatial predictions and the derivative habitat map. Future projects or management actions on the insular shelf will benefit greatly from the unified imagery, spatial predictions, derivative habitat map, and underwater photos and videos compiled during this project. These data sets can be used to make more informed decisions about sampling, permitting activities, and the management of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the U.S. Caribbean.

We are planning to make the following products publicly available:

  • GIS spatial datasets, including shapefiles and geotiffs of the benthic habitat map, individual habitat predictions
  • locations of underwater videos, and bathymetry and derivative surfaces
  • a report summarizing the methods used to create the updated habitat map
  • a web map for viewing select datasets and underwater videos online

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