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March 5, 2004 – When a crew from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel Nancy Foster recently explored the V.I. Coral Reef National Monument ocean floor, they confirmed what local scientists already believed.
"The fish stocks are so low, we don't know if they can recover," said Mark E. Monaco, biogeography program manager at NOAA's Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment in Silver Spring, Md.
The 187-foot Nancy Foster spent the last two weeks in the Virgin Islands studying the ocean floor at St. Croix's Buck Island Reef National Monument and at federal and local waters off St. John and St. Thomas. It carried a crew of 17 scientists and 17 crewmembers.
Monaco and other scientists on the project discussed their findings at a briefing Friday at V.I. National Park.
Monaco said the crew trapped 170 fish from 15 different species, a figure viewed as very low. Using a visual evaluation, the crew counted 138 species of fish.
They saw only one Nassau Grouper, a species that was once regularly caught by fishermen for food. Rafe Boulon, chief of resources management at Coral Reef and V.I. National Park, said the Nassau grouper population made a dramatic decline in the 1970s because fishermen took advantage of the fact that they gathered together when they laid their eggs. This made them easy targets.
"They filled their boats," Boulon said.
Monaco said he hopes that the monument's presence will allow fish stocks to recover. No fishing is allowed in the monument, but he said the Nancy Foster crew saw extensive amounts of fish traps in nearby territorial waters.
"Ghost traps" are a problem, according to the Nancy Foster photographic "diary" of the V.I. mission. But sometimes they are submerged long enough to become corroded, and then fish can freely swim in and out. In the case of the photograph at top of this article, several species of grunts have recruited such a corroded trap as a refuge.
Jeff Miller, a fisheries biologist with the park and the monument, said scientists will have to reevaluate the area in five or 10 years to see if closing the monument to fishing will have an effect on commercial fish stocks outside the monument.
"Fish don't care about the red line," Monaco added.
Using sonar, the Nancy Foster crew also mapped numerous reefs they didn't know existed.
Since Coral Reef National Monument is only just over three years old, scientists need to establish a base line of what's there now so they can evaluate what it looks like in the future.
"Suddenly we've been given a huge area to manage. This allows us to get a handle on what's out there," Boulon said, noting that it was not easy to manage an open ocean park.
The crew also spotted evidence of coral disease 103 feet down in the water and 3½ miles offshore. Miller said it was "interesting" to find this so far offshore and away from the affects caused by human habitation on the land.
Boulon said it appears the Nancy Foster spotted the Lorraine, an interisland cargo vessel headed from St. Croix to Tortola with a cargo of rum and trucks. The boat sank after catching fire just inside the Coral Reef Monument boundary.
Monaco said the recent rough weather was a factor for the Nancy Foster. The ship was unable to put smaller boats in the water for two days out of their week off St. John.
Monaco said he expects to return with the Nancy Foster in July to continue work.
To see a daily, chiefly photographic diary of the Nancy Foster's diving, go to the NCCOS Web site section on the ship's mission.
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