A lot of the time I see something on the reef that interests me, do the research and write about it. But now I am immersed in "Sanctuary Science." I figure I may as well communicate what is swimming around in my head while I am trying to absorb all this information. While I intake vast amounts of data (which I call Conehead Syndrome for you ancient SNL fans), let's see what filters through the gray sponge and spills out on the deck.
This is, of course, related to the marine zoning and review working group commitment I made to the sanctuary. Truth is, I am loving it. Woulda, coulda, shoulda been a scientist. I think that's one of the main reasons I love photography so much. Life in the water fascinates me. I have the utmost respect for folkswho have made careers out of their love of science. When they take the time to teach me, I am grateful. In fact, I am thankful for Suzy Roebling, a Sanctuary Advisory Council member who has been kind enough to mentor me on the science.
I must also make this disclaimer: What I say in no way reflects the official view of NOAA or FKNMS. Let's be clear on that. I'm just a simple guy that goes to meetings and reads a bunch of stuff, and jumps in the water with a camera.
It's all connected. Let's begin with that broad concept. William Wordsworth said: "The ocean is a mighty harmonist." That harmony has it's roots in connectivity. There are different modes of connectivity, and way too much to describe in one week. We will be back to this topic again soon.
Perhaps one of the clearest and easy-to-understand documents I have come across so far is the connectivity handbook from the Coal Reef Targeted Research program. Go to their site (www.gefcoral.org), and on the menu on the left click Publications and look for CRTR Connectivity Handbook. The list of publications on this page is quite impressive.
There are some basic things I've learned so far about connectivity. It manifests itself in several forms. Connectivity simply means things (nutrients, sediments, pollutants and organisms) move among different habitats. Some things ride the water movement, like sediment and pollutants, while living organisms travel for different purposes. This includes larval recruitment and settlement, all the way up to spawning and feeding.
For animal populations, genetic and ecological connectivity are important. Genetic, or evolutionary, connectivity is the gene flow among populations over a few generations. The extent of genetic differences in a population are controlled by this type of connectivity.
Ecological or demographic connectivity relates to the exchange of animals in local populations. This includes larval dispersal, recruitment and movements of juveniles and adults between locations. When you see schools of juveniles in the mangroves or snappers and grunts huddled under a ledge, that's part of the connectivity matrix.
For habitat managers with a primary concern for sustaining fisheries or coral reefs - like us - demographic connectivity is the hot button. Designing the sanctuary for the future with an emphasis on larval dispersal, recruitment and biomass movements, like nocturnal feeding, are all important considerations in establishing zones that are rich in habitat diversity and allow the normal demographic connectivity to take place.
If you want to peel back another layer on the information onion, Oceanography magazine devoted a special issue to connectivity. Grab that here: http://www.tos.org/oceanography/issues/issue_archive/20_3.html
Closer to home, there is a study from John Burke on how shallow bank systems behave like coral reefs. This study centers on three shallow bank systems on the Gulf side in the Middle Keys. Many of the same species inhabit the banks as the coral reefs, and the nocturnal feeders, like snappers and grunts, use the bank like they do a coral reef. Shelter during the day, easy access to foraging in the seagrass meadow at night, and the migration between the two areas mirrors activity on coral reefs in the Upper Keys that are adjacent to grass beds.
With all this in mind, a pretty easy example to see is Snapper Ledge. This one little spot has even greater meaning to me now that I am beginning to understand the concept of connectivity. I went there a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you - my dive buddies Bob and Phil will concur, per our discussion afterwards - it's declining as we speak. There simply are not as many fish there as there used to be. I've only been here about four years, and I see a difference.
Is that a connectivity issue? Is Snapper Ledge the daytime retreat for grunts and goatfish because of the adjacent seagrass meadow? Has the meadow changed to a point that no longer supports the nocturnal migration from the ledge to the bed? I don't know the answer to that. And if we choose to protect that area, and other areas, do we include the adjacent seagrass meadow, since that is a crucial element of the overall habitat? The more I read, the more questions I have. If you have thoughts, or better yet, solutions, I would like to hear them.
Here's another Wordsworth quote: "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." I hear that a lot from folks that have a long history in the Keys. We can make this a better place, and I believe the zoning review process has the potential to do that. As always, I am interested in your thoughts and observations. Connect with me.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is a member of the Ecosystem Protection Working Group for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.