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Released August 27, 2004

SCIENTISTS LAUNCH 'ALIEN' SURVEY IN MISSISSIPPI COASTAL WATERS

OCEAN SPRINGS - Scientists from the northern Gulf of Mexico kicked off a survey of alien species and living resources in Mississippi waters today.

Approximately 100 scientists and other volunteers from 29 organizations gathered at The University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory early today for final coordination on handling samples and data before heading out to the largest rapid assessment ever held in the Gulf.

In four days of intense work in the field and in laboratories at the GCRL, members of the Alabama-Mississippi Rapid Assessment Team will take a "snapshot" of all living organisms that are present in Mississippi Sound and adjacent waters. Their goal is to identify alien (non-native) species that have taken up residence in the state's coastal waters and to determine how well they are established.

"This is a baseline inventory of all living species," said David Yeager, director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. "Not one of our agencies could accomplish this survey alone. By working together, we expect to find out what non-natives are out there so that agencies and organizations can plan for the future."

Researchers will be combing the shorelines, sampling the sediments, scraping pilings, seining, diving, and taking to the skies to identify plant and animal species. Once the field teams collect the species, survey teams will identify the materials in labs at the GCRL. Examples of notorious aliens well known on the Gulf Coast include kudzu, fire ants and the giant Australian spotted jelly that swarmed northern Gulf waters in 2000.

"There are no walls in the marine environment at state lines," Yeager said. "What we find in Mississippi is of interest across the Gulf."

He said alien species can be benign or can impact public health, the economy and the environment of a region. By identifying non-native species early, the inventory better equips resource managers to deal with the threat or to direct research toward methods for controlling aliens that can cause problems.

Yeager and Harriet Perry, director of the Southern Miss Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the laboratory, are co-founders of AMRAT. A team of 50 to 60 scientists piloted the cooperative, comprehensive assessment strategies in Mobile Bay in September 2003. The 2004 effort is covering the Mississippi coast from state line to state line and out to the barrier islands.

Organizers are the GCRL, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. GCRL is providing housing and meals. Participating agencies are donating personnel, equipment and boats. Fiscal support is being provided through GCRL from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from the Mississippi Coastal Impact Assistance Program, through the Mobile NEP from the Environmental Protection Agency, and from Sea Grant.

Participating groups and agencies are Alabama Department of Marine Resources, Auburn University, Audubon Society, Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, Gulf of Mexico Program Office, Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, Malacological Research Center of Mobile, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mississippi Power Company, Mississippi State University (MSU), MSU Coastal Research and Extension Center, MSU GeoResources Institute, Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, National Park Service, Nature Conservancy, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Geological Survey, University of Alabama Biology Department, University of South Alabama Department of Biology, The University of Southern Mississippi Department of Marine Science and Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The survey is being coordinated with the Gulf of Mexico Regional Panel on Aquatic Nuisance Species, created to make recommendations to the National Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, a multi-agency federal panel for guiding invasive species work nationally.

"AMRAT needed an enormous range of scientific disciplines to make this work," Perry said. "The breadth of experience and expertise among the volunteers is awesome and the collaboration among individuals and organizations is impressive. Any agency with a stake in the resources of our coastal marine environment has personnel participating."

The GCRL is part of The University of Southern Mississippi College of Science and Technology.

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September 9, 2004 10:46 AM