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Released September 2, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS' GCRL HELPS LAUNCH MASSIVE MARINE SURVEY

MOBILE - Researchers from The University of Southern Mississippi are helping launch a four-day rapid assessment of alien and native species in Mobile Bay today (Tuesday, Sept. 2) by scientists from Mississippi and Alabama.

The scientific marathon - the first of its kind on the Gulf Coast - involves more than 50 scientists from Mississippi and Alabama. They will be out on the water to collect and observe plants and animals and in laboratories at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to identify specimens and process data collected on an intense, nonstop schedule. The goal is to collect and identify as many different organisms as possible during the survey period of Tuesday through Friday.

Organizers say the invasion of marine environments by nonnative species is producing severe economic and environmental concerns. Invasive species spread rapidly, create serious environmental impacts and out-compete native species.

"From microbes to marine mammals, we are looking at everything," said Harriet Perry, a Southern Miss fisheries biologist at the GCRL. "We want to see what alien species have established residence in the bay. The survey will also establish a baseline inventory of native plants and animals.

"We will repeat the survey next year for Mississippi's coastal waters with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs as host."

Squads of participants are trawling, seine netting, hand netting, collecting animals by hand and scraping fouling organisms from surfaces. Other groups will take ballast water samples from ships in port.

The survey is the brainchild of Perry and an Alabama colleague. Perry, director of the Southern Miss Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the GCRL, and David Yeager of the Mobile Bay National Estuarine Program, are members of a regional work group that makes recommendations to the Gulf of Mexico Regional Panel on aquatic nuisance species. That panel is part of a multi-agency task force on guiding work on invasive plants and animals nationally.

Perry and Yeager hatched the idea at a regional meeting a year ago, confident that with a modest financial stake from the Mobile Bay NEP, interested groups would make personnel, boats, gear and expertise available.

They were right. A few organizational meetings later the enterprise had been christened the Alabama-Mississippi Rapid Assessment Team or AMRAT. Lead agencies, in addition to the Southern Miss fisheries center and the Mobile NEP, are the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the Alabama Department of Conservation's Marine Resources Division and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

The Southern Miss fisheries center has enlisted 13 participants from the GCRL - scientists and technical staff from the center and faculty and students from the university's Department of Coastal Sciences. Other groups traveling from Mississippi to take part are from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Sea Lab is providing lodging and laboratory space. Further funding and in-kind support are being provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and by all the participating AMRAT organizations.

"Mississippi and Alabama have a tremendous pool of taxonomic expertise, and we felt these scientists would be enthusiastic about contributing their scientific skills," Perry said. "Any agency with a stake in the resources in our coastal marine environment has personnel participating."

Perry said the event also lays the groundwork for other programs and future research.

"Twenty years from now, when someone does a similar study, they can tell if natural populations have decreased or disappeared and how successful efforts have been in moderating the impact of alien species," she said. "Another plus is that specimens of every single animal species we collect will be processed into the GCRL Museum so that they will be available for research by scientists and students in the future."

Perry cites an added benefit for the fisheries center - the opportunity for a trial run on procedures for an inventory of Mississippi fauna that she and her team are assembling with the support of a grant from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, administered in Mississippi by the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

"There are great things coming out of this for everyone involved," Perry said. "This amazing survey is only possible because of the spirit of cooperation among agencies and scientists."

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September 4, 2003 4:09 PM

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