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The mission of the Biogeography Branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is to develop knowledge and products on the distribution and ecology of living marine resources throughout the Nation's estuarine, coastal and marine environments to provide resource managers, scientists and the public with an improved ecosystem basis for making decisions. The goal includes ensuring long-term economic, recreational, and environmental viability of coral reef ecosystems, which are currently threatened by multiple stressors including. climate change, disease, coastal development, invasive species, and pollution.

NOAA has been designated with trustee responsibility to conserve and protect coral reef ecosystems under the following executive orders and legislative mandates:

  • Coral Reef Conservation Act
  • Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act
  • U.S. Ocean Action Plan
  • The State of the Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific Freely Associated States report to Congress
  • A National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs
  • National Coral Reef Action Strategy
  • Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act
  • Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)
  • Coastal Zone Management Act
  • Water Resources Development Act
  • Coral Reef protection Executive Order 13089
  • Marine Protected Area Executive order 13158


The first of several goals identified by the National Coral Reef Action Strategy (2002) included creating comprehensive maps of all U.S. shallow water coral reef habitats. Benthic habitat mapping and characterization is a fundamental component of ecosystem-based coral reef management because it integrates a variety of information to define the extent, nature and health of these ecosystems. Without accurate maps and detailed information about the seafloor, resource managers lack fundamental data to make informed decisions.

Traditionally, benthic habitat mapping in the U.S. Caribbean has been based on optical remote sensing technologies (i.e., aerial photography and satellite imagery). While optical remote sensing has been very effective for mapping the distribution and status of shallow-water coral reef ecosystems, its use is limited to the depths at which seafloor features are visible in the imagery, which is typically 30 meters. (See: and

The advent of acoustic seafloor mapping technologies, coupled with the evolving needs of ecologists, scientists, marine resource managers, and Marine Protected Area (MPA) managers in the Caribbean, has expanded interest in exploring acoustic seafloor characterization techniques which can provide information about the moderate and deep water habitats. This project aims to meet the identified need for detailed bathymetric models of the U.S. Caribbean seafloor, as well as for continued benthic habitat characterizations and ecological inventories, beyond the depth limits of optical remote sensing technologies so as to create a near-seamless habitat map from the shoreline to 1000 meters water depth.

The primary objective of the seafloor mapping project is to integrate abiotic data collected from acoustic sonar systems with biotic information obtained from underwater imagery systems (Remotely and Autonomously Operated Vehicles and Drop/drift camera systems) and SCUBA dives to create accurate benthic habitat maps. Other project objectives are to conduct applied research to develop data acquisition standards, signal processing techniques, mapping and sampling design protocols, and to evaluate the utility of the new technologies. The mission’s intended outcome is a more complete understanding of the marine resources within the surveyed areas, information that will ultimately contribute to the development of detailed species utilization models linking physical habitats and biological information. Priority mapping areas include the National Park Service’s (NPS) Buck Island Reef and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monuments, Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Reserve, the fish spawning aggregation site at Grammanik Bank south of St. Thomas, the La Parguera area of southwest Puerto Rico, and areas closed to fishing by the Caribbean Fishery Management Council (CFMC) on the west side of Puerto Rico (Tourmaline Bank, Abrir La Sierra Bank, and Bajo De Cico), and Mona Island. The Biogeography Branch’s efforts to map moderate to deep water habitats of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico will also support other Biogeography Branch projects by quantifying habitat affinities for important marine fish species and defining their spatial and temporal utilization patterns across habitats.

The U.S. Caribbean benthic habitat characterization effort is intended to embody the principles of Integrated Ocean Coastal Mapping (IOCM) by integrating diverse mapping needs and goals into the project framework. Personnel and resources were drawn from multiple NOAA offices, as well as from the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, local resource management agencies, and academic partners throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Correspondingly, the resulting data products will be suitable for and made available to a wide variety of end-users, including project partners, NPS resource managers, the CFMC, Biogeography Branch research scientists, and researchers involved in testing and development of the new technology. There is also the potential for selective use of the data products in updating NOAA nautical charts and NOAA Tsunami Inundation Modeling projects. In addition, the mission will help NOAA meet its U.S. Coral Reef Task Force commitment to map U.S. coral reef ecosystems.

This Website

This website provides public access to all data collected during past Caribbean seafloor mapping missions conducted from 2004 through 2008. All of the available data have been cleaned, processed, and converted into GIS products for distribution.

This website also provides access to daily activity logs from as early as 2004.  From the cruise details link above, select the desired year using the tab menu.

NOAA’s Biogeography Branch is continuing to test and evaluate a variety of available seafloor classification techniques, both manual and automated. Acoustic seafloor classification is a developing field of research, and attempts to implement the techniques are accompanied by a variety of challenges. One key research question is how to extract an appropriate suite of preliminary products from the source data, and then how to combine that information with ground truth and local knowledge to create objective and reproducible end products that complement optical remote sensing work. Additionally, the Biogeography Branch is developing new accuracy assessment and ground-truthing protocols to ensure that all of the map products produced, from this and other projects are meaningful and accurate. The final transition from source data to finalized benthic habitat classifications will be an ongoing process.


Products are available through the Documentation and Data Links at top of this page.

For More Information

Project Manager:
1305 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301-713-3028 x171

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