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Reef becomes classroom for scientists
Volunteer diver Randy Rudd puts on his we suit.
About the Nancy Foster

Formerly a U.S. Navy torpedo test ship, the Nancy Foster (right) was converted to a research vessel for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in 2001. The 186.5-foot, 894 ton ship is operated by a 22 person crew and has room for 15 visiting scientists. Its officers all have science degrees.
Located about 16 miles due east from Sapelo Island, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is a haven for a marine life and a heaven for divers and anglers.
It’s also a 22-square-mile, 14,000-acre outdoor classroom for scientists.
“It is a unique habitat,” said Gray’s Reef Sanctuary Superintendent Georgia Sedberry. “It’s close to the shore, it’s only 60 feet deep and it’s spectacular and accessible.”
Led by Sedberry, researchers from Gray’s Reef, a number of universities and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently collected enough data for a year’s worth of homework. They gathered the information while aboard  the Nancy Foster, a National Ocean and Atomospheric Administration (NOAA) research ship.  
During a stint that began May 18 and continued until May 30, researchers and Foster crewmembers worked around the clock.
Their research included tagging fish, mapping beyond the sanctuary’s borders and using divers to get up-close looks at habitats. Scientists also measured cardon dixode levels, trying to get an idea of how the oceans are handling increased Co2 levels in the atmosphere.
The research is important for a number of reasons, scientists say. So is the sanctuary itself, one of only 14 in the U.S.
“The whole goal of a national marine sanctuary is to manage the habitat, promote science and education and promote public awareness of the ocean,” said Gail Krueger, outreach and communications coordinator for Grays Reef and a former journalist who covered environmental issues. “This is at the heart of the science that we do there.”
Scientists recently invited reporters out for a close up look at both the Nancy Foster and the research done at the reef.
“We really want to keep the public informed about the science that is done at the sanctuary,” Krueger said. “People have an interest in knowing what’s going on. As taxpayers, they have a right to know how their money is being spent.”
The sanctuary operates on an annual budget of approximately $900,000. The help it gets from agencies such as NOAA, the DNR and various universities is hard to put into numbers, Sedberry said.
But one of the most important missions for scientists aboard the Nancy Foster in May was studying fish up close and personal.
While the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council is closing red snapper fisheries in waters off northeast Florida and parts of Georgia in order to prevent overfishing, scientists working in conjunction with Gray’s Reef researchers are trying to learn more about the fish themselves.
“Tagging red snapper and grouper is a big part of  the mission,” said Krueger, who noted that Gray’s Reef has nothing to do with the “regulatory actions of (the SAFMC).
"We're not closing the fisheries. We’re actively trying to figure out how the fish use the habitat and going into such fine detail in order to better manage the sanctuary,” she said. 
In all, DNR staff and volunteers caught and tagged 25 fish while the Foster was at the sanctuary.
The fish were caught on barbless hooks and slowly raised to the surface. Once there, the gases in their swim bladders were vented in order to reduce stress on the fish, which were looked after by marine biologists from the Georgia Aquarium at Skidaway Island Oceanographic Institute.  
Once aboard the Nancy Foster, the fish were kept 24 hours in aerated tanks before being tagged with a pinger that allows scientists to keep track of the fish’s movement.
After an additional 24 hours, the fish were released where they were caught.
Meanwhile, divers spent time checking scientific equipment located at various spots at the reef in order to learn how the fish behave. Underwater videographers recorded images for use by the NOAA.
One of the divers during the Foster’s stay at Gray’s Reef was volunteer Randy Rudd, a retired school social worker and diving instructor from Savannah. Sedberry praised the work of volunteers such as Rudd, who said he got involved after reading a newspaper article.
“I read about Team Ocean last August and thought ‘I’d really like to do that,’” Rudd said. “I’ve been eight months in training. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot you have to be prepared for. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in helping these scientists do their work.”
One of the things that makes Gray’s Reef so important to researchers is its location, said Greg McFall, deputy superintendent of the sanctuary and coordinator of research. 
“It’s kind of like a crossroads ...” McFall said. “It’s the northern oceanographic limit for a lot of southern species, and it’s at the southern limit for a lot of northern species,”
It’s also located between temperate and tropical waters -- “Its temperatures can range from 86 degrees in this summer to 56 degrees in the winter,” McFall said -- and more than 160 species of fish and 300 species of invertebrates call the reef home.
“In one square meter you can find 100 different species,” McFall said. “The biodiversity here is so dynamic.”
And despite increasing pressure from Georgia’s growing population, the reef remains healthy, scientists say.
“Things are actually pretty good,” said Sedberry, who has worked at Gray’s Reef for 30 years. “But as more people move to the coast they want to do things in the ocean, so the impact of development on land has an impact on the ocean.”
Among those impacts are increased fishing pressure and more trash.
“We’re finding more debris,” he said. “Old fishing gear, beer cans, plastics. Of course, plastics are everywhere."
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