Dr. Heyward Mathews speaks on reef monitoring
Dr. Heyward Mathews and Chuck Holloway

Dr. Heyward Mathews and Chuck Holloway

Dr. Heyward Mathews is Professor Emeritus at St. Petersburg College where he teaches courses in Oceanography. He is also a dive instructor and has certified more than 1400 SCUBA students.  He spoke about reef monitoring via research and sampling in the Gulf of Mexico off Pinellas County.  Dr. Mathews was instrumental in the creation of the Clearwater Aquarium and was responsible for the development of twenty artificial reefs on our coast.  Updates on the progress of the reef and other research are presented yearly in April at the State of the Reef Symposium.

Red tide kills fish.  As these fish decay a drop in water oxygen results, and this oxygen depletion kills all marine life but coral.  Thus, after the 2005-2006 red tide focus was on reef recovery and the question was:  what was there before?  Reef monitoring began and Dr. Mathews trained sports divers to count fish and other reef inhabitants.  Four months later there was an oil spill in the Gulf, however, the loop current prevented oil from washing onto our beaches.  Thanks to the monitoring program three years of baseline data were acquired.

Dr. Mathews identified a particular coral that he described as the “canary in the mine” in that it is a fragile coral.  It was killed in the 2005 red tide and has now been growing for 8 years.  Research will continue to focus on this coral as being the “canary” that will warn of impending disaster.

Another area of research is the evaluation of the effectiveness of artificial reefs.  Dr. Mathews noted that natural coral reefs exist only to promote the continued existence of corals, while artificial reefs promote growth of marine life.  When structure, such as concrete culverts, is placed on the barren sands off our coast, algae begins to grow on the structure, which attracts other creature that feed on it and larger creatures that feed on those creatures.  At some point these die and shells fall to the sand.  This becomes habitat for worms, crabs, shrimp and other sea life.  Bottom samples are treated with a stain that identifies once living organisms.  Volunteers remove the stained materials, and analyses show that the artificial reefs have become a large food source in the Gulf.

Another project has involved the placement of light traps over the reefs.  These are barrels with sides having small diameter holes that are suspended 4-5 feet below the surface.  These barrels contain fluorescent lights that, when illuminated at night, attract small fish that enter the barrels through the small half inch diameter holes but then are unable to escape.  The purpose of the barrels is to collect samples of small fish to determine whether the artificial reefs are providing spawning areas.  And the answer is, “yes”.

Did Dr. Mathews stimulate his audience?  No sooner than he asked whether there were any questions than multiple hands waved to get his attention.  He continues to teach!

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