Coast News

NOAA Awards $1.7 Million for Habitat Connectivity Research to Support National Marine Sanctuaries

From a bird’s eye view, the ocean appears to be an endless expanse of blue. Though, if you peek below the surface, the water column and seafloor reveal an active place made up of varying ecosystems that consist of a myriad of organisms and habitats.

Understanding how these different habitats are connected to each other and how fishes, marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles use them is the focus of three newly funded projects in Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, and Stellwagen Bank national marine sanctuaries. This month, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is announcing $1.7 million of an anticipated $5.9 million in funding for research to support the management of national marine sanctuaries.

This newly funded research will focus on how different species are using habitats within marine protected areas (MPAs) by tagging and tracking key species using telemetry in each sanctuary. Scientists and resource managers will use this information to determine if the protected area is working well to support that particular species, and inform future management decisions.

2 NOAA 20211008 sniderbank 600The banks scattered across the Northern Gulf of Mexico in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary provide habitat to a diverse array of fishes. Photo: NOAA/UNCW-UVP

At NOAA, our mission is to conserve and manage marine ecosystems and resources. One of the tools we use to protect significant natural and cultural marine resources for the benefit of present and future generations is the designation of MPAs, such as national marine sanctuaries. For MPAs to meet their intended purpose and benefit, a better understanding of the different species that use the habitats within those areas and how those habitats are connected is needed.

Habitat connectivity is an important concept in the field of ecology. Habitat connectivity refers to how and to what extent patches or fragments of a particular habitat are connected, which can influence the distribution, genetic diversity, and health of various animal and plant populations. For animals that undergo several life stages and utilize a variety of habitats, protecting only a particular patch may not offer the conservation benefits to ensure long-term species survival. This knowledge will allow resource managers to evaluate the efficacy of current boundaries and make informed decisions about boundary expansions in existing sanctuaries, and new sanctuary designations. This type of effective management and conservation of marine resources will be beneficial in the face of growing ecosystem threats.

3 NOAA 20211008 muttonsnapper 600Juvenile mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) typically take shelter in seagrass beds and mangrove habitats. The seagrass bed shown here is considered sparse/thin. Photo: Alastair Harborne/FIU

Filling Data Gaps

These projects represent novel research efforts to address previously understudied habitat types and species. Seagrass beds are home to a wide range of critters at some part of their life cycles, and provide food and shelter to a range of fishes. Globally, studies show that marine plants are poorly represented in the current network of MPAs. The project in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will focus on identifying the seagrass types and spatial coverage most beneficial to reef fish in the sanctuary. Species of interest for this study include white grunt, bar jack, mutton snapper, and great barracuda.

“This work will provide us with urgently needed information, allowing resource managers to determine the spatial extent of seagrass habitats and the condition of those seagrass beds within the sanctuary under current and future environmental scenarios,” said Andy Bruckner, research coordinator at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

4 NOAA 20211008 creolefish 600The creolefish (Paranthias furcifer) is a member of the grouper family. There is currently limited information about their lifestyle and behavioral patterns. Photo: G.P. Schmahl/NOAA

The newly expanded Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is the focus for tagging and tracking reef-associated fishes to assess how they use this network of banks and reefs. Species under investigation will include a wide range of fishes, including the native snapper-grouper complex, invasive lionfish, foundational reef fishes such as parrotfish, and aggregating species such as hammerheads and wahoo. Researchers will look at how these species are using different areas on an individual bank, how they spend their time across different banks, and also how these patterns vary throughout the different life stages of each animal (larval to adult).

“Currently, this information is unknown for targeted fishes, compromising resource managers’ ability to implement measures to effectively protect habitats and species that depend on these reefs and banks for their survival,” said Emma Hickerson, research coordinator at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

The work in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary will focus on a suite of highly-migratory animals that spend part of their time within the New England region (specifically, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, five MPAs surrounding the coast of Massachusetts, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument). Animals of interest include several species of whales, seals, turtles, seabirds, and sharks, which have not been the focus of previous dedicated studies, and for which management concerns exist. Animal movements will be tracked using telemetry to generate maps that allow researchers to see if there is any overlap between areas with high animal activity, and areas of high human use or anthropogenic (human-made) risk.

“Results from this study will give us better tools to evaluate the placement and interconnectivity of existing MPA networks and how these might be optimized to benefit protected species facing a myriad of threats, like fisheries interactions and climate change,” said Dave Wiley, research coordinator at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

5 NOAA 20211008 harborseal 600Harbor seals are considered non-migratory, but tracking data has shown they will sometimes travel long distances for pupping, or to find seasonally available food. Photo: Elliott Hazen/NOAA under NOAA Fisheries Permit #14245

Research for the Future

Our global ocean is under threat from changes and human impacts, and protection goes beyond drawing a box on a map. NOAA is funding this research to gather information—such as, how species use the habitats within MPAs, how habitats are connected, and how MPAs benefit areas outside their boundaries—to improve our management of protected areas.

Understanding what to conserve and how it is connected is critical to meeting the White House’s America the Beautiful initiative to protect 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.

By Kimberly Puglise and Sierra Sarkis

Kimberly Puglise is an oceanographer and federal program officer for these projects under the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Sierra Sarkis is a communications specialist for CSS and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.

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