Three agencies team up to digitally map coral reefs

Three agencies team up to digitally map coral reefs

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Geological Survey are using satellites, aircraft and computers to map locations of U.S. coral reefs and monitor their viability.

NOAA started the effort in the fall of 1998 after a request from the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, said Mark Monaco, a marine biologist for NOAA's National Ocean Service.

'We joined together to produce maps for marine resource management in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,' Monaco said.

The agencies' first move was to use the LANDSAT satellite, developed and maintained by NOAA, NASA and USGS, to locate the reefs.

'We wanted to help target and prioritize the reefs for more high-resolution mapping,' Monaco said.

Last February, NOAA sent up its Cessna CitationJet to acquire high-resolution aerial photos of the ocean-bottom habitats off Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, he said.

The jet had two ports. From one, a color camera took shots of the reefs in the red, green and blue spectra. The other port contained a hyperspectral imager from 3-DI Inc. of Easton, Md., that views 288 wavelength spectra. That provided enough resolution to detect features in the water, Monaco said.

NOAA used Precision Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, to process the photos into prints and digital files. The agency then sent the image files to the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which pieced them into a mosaic to make one large image, he said.

NOAA and contractor Curtis Krueer then interpreted the large image to make digital map drafts of the coral reefs, Monaco said.

Late last year, Monaco and NOAA marine biologists and oceanographers went into the water around the four major islands and all the barrier islands of the Virgin Islands to validate the maps. They also assessed the accuracy of the methodologies used to interpret the images, he said.

'We're still conducting the assessment at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., but initial analysis indicates a close agreement between the images and what we found in the field,' Monaco said.

Monaco and his team plan to map Puerto Rico's waters, using the same process to identify all the island's reefs and caves. In March the team will head to Hawaii to map the eight islands' reefs.

'Mapping of our nation's coral reefs is essential to our understanding and conservation of this valuable ecosystem,' NOAA administrator D. James Baker said. 'Collectively, our scientists and partners have the expertise and technology to better map and monitor all U.S. coral reefs.'

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