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Scientists: Reef's fish 'help each other'
Researchers monitor predatory fish habits
ship away
A small boat leaves the Nancy Grace. - photo by Photo by Lauren Hunsberger
No anchoring near reef

According to Gail Krueger with the NOAA, because of the delicate habitat, boats are not allowed to anchor in Gray’s Reef because it could harm the environment.
“The catamaran [used for fishing re-
search] … as well as the Nancy Foster have specialized navigation tools nicknamed ‘skyhook’ that allows them to maintain position without anchoring. It is illegal to anchor in Gray’s Reef,” she said.
Scientist and professor of marine sciences Peter Auster, along with two undergraduate interns from the University of Connecticut, recently docked after a two-week research cruise to Gray’s Reef where they tracked a few of the Southern Coast’s most notorious bad boys.
In an attempt to better understand the overall dynamic of the marine sanctuary, the team studied specific fish species such as barracudas, amberjack, and Spanish mackerel; species that Auster explained have killer capabilities.
“We’re here looking at the ecology of piscivores — fish-eating-fish — and the behavioral relationships between predator and prey and predator and predator because there’s apparently a level of cooperation between predators that enhances their feeding efficiency,” he said.
After hours of observation, Auster said his team has found that species known to frequent the reef assist each other both directly and indirectly. Auster said he’s specifically intrigued with the indirect predation relationships.
“For example, amberjack or barracuda attack herring or cigar minnows, a common species for the area, and those prey species flee to the bottom to get away from the predator, and when they’re fleeing in a dense ball they create feeding opportunities for the fish on the bottom like gag and scamp,” Auster said.
Housed on the Nancy Foster NOAA research vessel with many other researchers, the team of divers collected data by watching first-hand and videotaping fish predation behavior to get a better grasp on the feeding patterns and hierarchy of the reef’s fish.
He said they watch
for rates of predation, key species and any other useful, quantifiable information. Auster said understanding these patterns helps
with conservation, education and management of the marine sanctuary and others like it.
“It helps us realize there’re special places in the ocean that you have to manage differently than the rest of the sea,” he said.
Greg McFall, co-chief scientist for this cruise and research coordinator for Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, agreed and said that Auster’s project, like the four other research projects scientists conducted aboard the Nancy Foster, is critical to keeping the habitat healthy.
“The questions we’re trying to answer on this cruise are management-related questions of the scientific nature so we invited these people to help answer these questions. Dr. Auster is here because his expertise is in the connections between different fish groups in the sanctuary,” McFall said.
Auster believes as the team continues with the project, they will solve a few of the reef’s mysteries.
“We’re still in the description phase, but ultimately we want to be able to model these interactions and predict what would happen if you remove a part of the system to remove a species or if the population goes down. And it’s not just here, but other sites as well,” he said.
Now equipped with loads of data and numbers, the team, including interns Ian Le Clair and Victoria Price, will head back north to sift through and organize the information.
“Ultimately, the information will get published in a journal and be read by managers adding to the discussion of how to manage this site,” Auster said.
One thing he said he’s already confirmed, however, is that when it comes to survival at the reef, size does matter.
“You don’t want to be a tiny fish out there,” he said.
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