Q&A: Kennedy Space Center Encompasses Some of the Healthiest Estuarine Habitat in East Florida
By Space Coast Daily // April 24, 2020
Sharks are abundant and diverse-off KSC beach
BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center for the protection of migratory birds and KSC encompasses some of the healthiest estuarine habitat left here in east Florida.
Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks that provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 15 federally listed species.
One study found that sportfish such as sea trout, red drum and black drum were larger and 3 to 13 times more abundant inside these areas. These animals eventually “spillover” to adjacent areas and are a major reason why our region is considered a prime fishing location.
Question: What role does Kennedy play in sustaining Indian River Lagoon (IRL) fisheries?
Answer: Kennedy encompasses some of the healthiest estuarine habitat left here in east Florida.
While no part of the lagoon is pristine these days, Kennedy waters (much of which is managed as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or NWR) receive reduced nutrient inputs compared to urbanized areas such as Cocoa Beach and Titusville, and has some of the least developed shorelines in our region with not a condo or strip mall in sight.
Secondly, in 1962, 30 cubic kilometers of the Banana River and Banana Creek was set aside inside the Kennedy security zone, creating a de facto marine park where fish receive no angling pressure.
One study found that sportfish such as sea trout, red drum and black drum were larger and 3 to 13 times more abundant inside these areas.
These animals eventually “spill over” to adjacent areas and are a major reason why our region is considered a prime fishing location.
Q: Why is an understanding of fish resources important to Kennedy and how do we use the data?
A: While revealing the basic biology and behavior of local wildlife are valuable in themselves, much of the data we collect ultimately helps Kennedy avoid disturbing important fish habitats during facility construction or rocket launch operations.
It also is useful on the regulatory front by helping streamline environmental permitting processes, which keeps Kennedy projects on track.
Our data also has been used by the State of Florida and other federal agencies to help refine the management of several fish species.
Q: How does the Kennedy Ecological Program monitor fish resources at Cape Canaveral?
A: We have two big initiatives at the moment. First, we are members of the Florida Atlantic Coastal Telemetry (FACT) Array, a collaborative project using acoustic telemetry (AT) technology to follow the movements of fish and sea turtles throughout the lagoon and along the coast.
AT allows us to document animal migrations and identify important spawning and foraging locations.
We’ve also received generous support from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to document fish communities along the Canaveral shoreline using traditional sampling gears.
And we conduct site-specific fish surveys with nets and traps, and respond to fish kills when they occur.
Q: How does acoustic telemetry work?
A: It’s obviously difficult to directly observe movements of aquatic animals, especially in murky water like we have here at Kennedy.
With acoustic telemetry, acoustic transmitters (tags) are surgically implanted into fish or externally attached to sea turtle shells.
These transmitters emit a high-frequency ping every few minutes, which is recorded by submerged acoustic receivers deployed in waters around Kennedy, and by other researchers along the coast.
With enough receivers, we can recreate animal movements in great detail.
The system works around the clock and the tags last up to a decade, allowing us to finally answer important questions regarding site residency, seasonal migration, and spawning.
Q: What species are you tracking?
A: In the lagoon at Kennedy, we’ve tagged red drum, black drum, sea trout, snook, tarpon, and sheepshead, plus green and loggerhead sea turtles.
We also collaborate with other researchers to study lemon, finetooth, blacknose, and scalloped hammerhead sharks, red drum, cobia, bluefish, and mackerel along the Canaveral shoreline.
Q: Who are your research partners?
A: One of the most exciting aspects of our research is the amount of collaboration with other groups. For example, virtually all telemetry researchers from Nova Scotia to Texas are using compatible technology.
In Florida, the FACT Array alone has more than 20 partners including most major universities, the State of Florida, the U.S. Navy, and several independent marine research labs.
We interact with these folks on almost a daily basis as our animals move from one study site to another.
As a result, we are better integrated into the science community than we’ve ever been before and are undertaking new projects that would have otherwise been financially and logistically prohibitive.
Q: What are the most important findings of the FACT Array so far?
A: First, we’ve documented that adult red drum and black drum that is protected within the Kennedy security zone for much of the year will spread out to spawn.
In other words, they get fat and happy at Kennedy but then distribute their eggs over a much wider area. We think that’s a very positive story for the center.
We’ve also documented that Canaveral beaches appear to be the most important winter nursery for lemon sharks in the southeastern U.S. Most of these young sharks spend the summer to the north but have returned each winter for up to six consecutive years.
One of the most important locations is right off the Kennedy Beach House where we’ve occasionally observed hundreds of animals at any one time.
And remember in 2010 when it got so cold that more than 2,000 stunned sea turtles were rescued from the lagoon?
We tagged a number of those turtles before releasing them, which provided data that demonstrated very high survivorship, validating the effort from all those volunteers.
Q: What is the most unexpected animal you’ve detected in the array?
A: The biggest surprises are animals originally tagged by other researchers that move through the Canaveral region.
To date we’ve detected more than 300 animals from 25 species, some of which were tagged as far away as New England.
For example, we’ve detected endangered Atlantic sturgeon from Connecticut and Delaware, cownose rays from Virginia, tripletail from Georgia, and innumerable sharks from South Florida and the Bahamas.
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is all the white sharks we have.
We’ve detected fifteen so far, all released in Massachusetts. And not way offshore either, but often right in the surf zone. They’ve always been here of course, but now we can see it.
Q: What are the most common sharks around Kennedy?
A: The only truly common shark in the Indian River Lagoon and at Kennedy are young bull sharks. One hotspot we’ve found locally is in the VAB Turn Basin.
The going theory is that adult females enter the lagoon for short periods to give birth.
We actually detected a pregnant female bull shark originally tagged in the Bahamas enter the lagoon last spring.
Sharks are much more abundant and diverse-off the Kennedy beach.
We’ve documented 17 species locally, the most common being sharpnose, blacknose, blacktip, and finetooth shark. Some remain year-round but numbers are elevated during spring and fall migratory periods.
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