"Understanding the extent of the reefs and where the most important habitats are will help researchers and managers determine those areas that need the greatest protection, and those that might require less protection, " says Reed.
Another important focus of the expedition will be to assess populations of snappers and groupers and choose sections of the reef for initial monitoring surveys to be used as benchmarks. Through comparisons over time with repeat visits scientists will be able to assess progress in the Oculina Experimental Closed Area for restoring coral cover and replenishing fish stocks. Recent expeditions have already revealed encouraging signs that fish populations in this section are slowly but surely increasing. In coming years, researchers hope to see populations of snappers and groupers recovering enough to again form large breeding aggregations in the area.
"We need to establish a statistically and scientifically sound basis to assess whether the habitat and fisheries are changing over time, and whether the reserve and enforcement are working," says Reed.
A final goal for the cruise will be to collect samples of Oculina coral whose genetics will be analyzed back on land and compared against that of Oculina found in shallow water, which is much more common. The purpose will be to determine if the deepwater version is a distinct species. This information is significant because the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana has petitioned the federal government to include the deepwater form of Oculina under the Endangered Species Act, which would only be possible if it is in fact a genetically distinct species.