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Shown below at right: Marine biology students (l-r) Jacquie Shapo of Turnersville, N.J., Jenna Krug of Englishtown, N.J., and Michelle Kraczkowski of Chepachet, R.I. with their professor, ecologist Graham Forrester.

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Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

NSF awards $550,000 grant to URI professor

Research has implications for fisheries management

KINGSTON, R.I. -- April 8, 2003 -- The tiny bridled and the gold-spot goby fish that inhabit coral reefs in the Caribbean are like some Rhode Islanders. They never stray far from where they were born. In fact, these gobies live their entire lives within a couple of square meters.

It is exactly this stay-around-home feature that makes this fish an ideal species to study, unlike say elephants. You can tag gobies, manipulate their habitat, observe them closely, and predict their behavior.

And that’s exactly what University of Rhode Island ecologist Graham Forrester (underwater at left) has been doing with the help of two large grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). What Forrester discovers can tell us a lot about ecological factors, not only for gobies but the results can be extrapolated to include pachyderms and other animals.

Forrester, an associate professor in URI’s Natural Resource Science Department in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, was recently awarded an additional four-year $550,000 NSF grant to continue his research on gobies to understand the factors that control fish populations.

To survive and thrive, bridled and gold-spot gobies need to be safe from predators, have enough invertebrates to eat, a place to hang their hats, and be free from disease.

Forrester’s first four-year NSF $403,000 grant allowed his team of researchers, including URI students, to don their scuba gear and create a variety of dining-room table size reefs of coral and rocks in the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands.

Once the reefs were created, the goby populations on the reefs, tattooed with silicone numbers, were closely watched by the researchers during the summers --–an active reproduction time--and checked a few times a year. The challenge was to understand interactions in nature by answering simple questions: What would happen to the population if the fish had more or less places to hide? What if food was limited or more abundant? What if predators were eliminated?

By manipulating their home-made reefs by adding or subtracting hiding places, partially or completely netting the area or hanging overhead lights to attract more invertebrates for the gobies to eat, Forrester and his group searched for answers. The most important factor for survival was hiding places, since the goby has numerous predators. The URI professor notes that there are 600 species of fish that live on coral reefs, many of which are predators. "It’s a very complicated community," he says.

The next question is will the same things happen to entire reef systems? Funded by the new NFS grant, Forrester will seek that answer by working with five full-scale reefs in the Bahamas that vary naturally in shelter abundance. Rick Vance, an associate investigator on the project and a mathematician at the University of California at Los Angeles where Forrester taught before coming to URI three years ago, is creating a mathematical model that takes into account the current research results and scales them up. The model will tell the scientists what they can expect to see. The team will observe goby populations on entire reefs to check the model’s predictions.

To test whether hiding places are as important at large scales as they are on tiny homemade reefs, each of the five reefs will be divided in half. On one side, Forrester and his team will add boatloads of rocks and coral to increase the number of goby hiding places to its highest natural level. The other side of the reef will remain unaltered and serve as a control.

Forrester notes that population studies at this larger scale are rare, but a deeper understanding of their dynamics is of practical importance for it is at this size that marine reserves are designated and at which most reef fisheries are managed. If the scientists’ hypothesis that goby populations are dependent on shelter provided by the reef is confirmed, the results would also have important implications because of the ongoing degradation of coral reef.

Forrester’s former post-doc, Mark Steele, now a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is his co-principal investigator on the project.

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