Keys reef fish were lacking data so she started mapping

Rachel Zuercher

Rachel Zuercher is arming scientists and lawmakers with the science they need to better protect marine resources.

As an FIU postdoctoral researcher, Rachel Zuercher studied the mapping of coral reef fisheries on the Florida Reef Tract. She converted hard data into maps of current and potential fish biomass in the Florida Reef Tract while working in biologist Alastair Harborne’s Tropical Fish Ecology Lab and in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy.

The federal and state government have conducted fish counts in Florida reefs for the past 20 years, but have not done so for every reef in the Florida Keys. This means a significant amount of reefs had no current biomass data. Zuercher and her team determined the mathematical relationships between various variables that all combine into a reasonable estimate on how much fish biomass is currently on a reef, and how much biomass could be on the reef. These statistical models and mathematical equations allow viewers to identify zones in the ocean that would be capable of supporting more fish, a tool that would greatly help citizens and lawmakers determine where marine protected areas might have the most ecological and economic benefit.

Zuercher now continues her research as a postdoctoral fellow with the National Center for Socio-Environmental Synthesis. She is leading a group of experts who are developing a framework for marine spatial planning initiatives and gathering a wide range of data to test the framework. This research could shed light on whether marine spatial planning delivers socio-ecological benefits relevant to the sustainable use of ocean ecosystems.

She recently shared her research with the Upper Keys community as part of FIU’s Ocean Life Lecture Series.

The next Ocean Life Lecture will feature Mireya Mayor – National Geographic Explorer, star of Travel Channel’s series Expedition Bigfoot and director of the Exploration and Science Communication Initiative in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education.

The FIU Institute of Environment, along with the Friends of the Key Largo Cultural Center, will host the next talk from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. on March 5 at the Florida Keys Brewing Company located at 200 Morada Way in Islamorada, Fla.

For information, please contact Cathy Guinovart, coordinator of administrative services for the Institute of Environment.

Valerie Ramirez contributed to this article.