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Open-File Report 00-350

Cruise Report RV Ocean Surveyor Cruise O-1-00-GM The Bathymetry and Acoustic Backscatter of the Pinnacles Area, Northern Gulf of Mexico May 23, through June 10, 2000 Venice, LA to Venice, LA

By James V. Gardner, Kenneth J.Sulak, Peter Dartnell, Laurent Hellequin, Brian Calder, and Larry A. Mayer

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4.3 MB)Background

An extensive deep (~100 m) reef tract occurs on the Mississippi-Alabama outer continental shelf (OCS). The tract, known as "The Pinnacles", is apparently part of a sequence of drowned reef complexes along the "40-fathom" shelf edge of the northern Gulf of Mexico (Ludwick and Walton, 1957). It is critical to determine the accurate geomorphology of deep-reefs because of their importance as benthic habitats for fisheries. The Pinnacles were mapped by Ludwick and Walton (1957) using a single-beam echo sounder but the spatial extent and morphology were interpreted from a series of widely separated, poorly navigated bathymetric profiles. Other recent studies, supported by Minerals Management Service (MMS), used towed sidescan sonars and single-channel seismic-reflection profiling. None of the existing studies provide the quality of geomorphic data necessary for reasonable habitat studies. The fish faunas of shallow hermatypic reefs have been well studied, but those of deep ahermatypic reefs have relatively ignored. The ecology of deep ahermatypic reefs is fundamentally different from hermatipic reefs because autochthonous intracellular symbiotic zooxanthellae (the carbon source for hermatypic corals) do not form the base of the trophic web. Instead, exogenous plankton, transported to the reef by currents, serves as the primary carbon source. Deep OCS reefs also lie below the practical working depths for SCUBA; consequently, remote investigations from a ship or in situ investigations using submersibles or ROVs are required. Community structure and trophodynamics of demersal fishes of the Pinnacles are presently the focus of USGS reseach. A goal of the research is to answer questions concerning the relataive roles played by geomorphology and surficial geology in the interaction with and control of biological differentiation. OCS reefs are important because we now know that such areas are important coral reef fish havens, key spawning 2 sites, and a critical early larval and juvenile habitats for economically important sport/food fishes. Also, deep-reef ecosystems as well as the fish populations they sustain are impacted by intensive oil-field development. It is now known that deep OCS reefs function as a key source of re-population (via seasonal and ontogenetic migration) of already heavily impacted inshore reefs. A reflection of this realization is the recent closure by the Gulf States Fisheries Management Council of a 600 mi 2 area of the Florida Middle Grounds (another unmapped major "40-fathom" OCS reef complex) to commercial fishing to preserve grouper spawning aggregations.

It is known that the Pinnacles reefs support a lush fauna of ahermatypic hard corals, soft corals, black corals, sessile crinoids and sponges—together forming a living habitat for a well-developed fish fauna. The fish fauna comprises typical Caribbean reef fishes and Carolinian shelf fishes, plus epipelagic fishes, and a few deep-sea fishes. The base of the megafaunal invertebrate food web is plankton, borne by essentially continuous semi-laminar currents flowing predominantly out of the SW, up, along and across the shelf edge. These currents are intercepted by pinnacles reefs, which lie roughly in two linear tracts, parallel to the coastline (see fig. 1 in report). USGS research initiated in 1997 (Sulak et al., in progress) has demonstrated that the Pinnacles reef fish fauna is dominated by planktivorous fishes. Ongoing food habits, trophic web and stable isotope analyses by the USGS are reinforcing a basic picture of deep OCS reefs as ecosystems based on exogenous current-borne plankton. Long-term current meter deployments have demonstrated that the >3 m, <16m relief of the Pinnacles reefs disrupts the prevailing currents, inducing local complexity (F. Kelly, Texas A&M Univ., pers. comm.) favorable to plankton and planktivores. Geodetically accurate bathymetry maps, coregistered with calibrated acoustic backscatter maps, are critical to delineate benthic biotopes, and are essential to correlate biological community differentiation with the physical environment. Previous mapping of the Pinnacles area using the TAMU towed single-beam sidescan system (Anonymous., 1999) employed technology with inherent deficiencies in backscatter calibration, bathymetric precision, and geo-referencing. The resulting bathymetric interpretations of TAMU data are further degraded by ship-track-parallel artifacts that obliterate geomorphology rendering them inadequate to provide high-resolution mapping of individual target reefs (typical maximum relief 15 m, diameter 200-500 m). The sidescan-sonar surveys of the area (Laswell et al., 1990) suffer many of the same deficiencies as the TAMU data so they add no quantitative and little qualitative information about the geomorphology and surficial geology.

First posted December 18, 2000

For additional information, contact:
Contact Information, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Pacific Science Center
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

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Suggested citation:

Gardner, James V., Sulak, Kenneth J., Dartnell, Peter, Hellequin, Laurent, Calder, Brian, and Mayer, Larry A., 2000, Cruise Report RV Ocean Surveyor Cruise O-1-00-GM The Bathymetry and Acoustic Backscatter of the Pinnacles Area, Northern Gulf of Mexico May 23, through June 10, 2000 Venice, LA to Venice, LA: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-350, 36 pp.,


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