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Navassa Island: Natural History Field Work

Until 1998, very little work had been done on the natural history and biodiversity of the biota of Navassa Island. In the late 18th century, a Swedish botanist sailed past Navassa and recorded two cliff-dwelling plant species. In 1928, a second Swedish botanist, spent some time on the island and identified 102 plant species, 44 of which he believed to be endemic. A short time later, in 1929-30, Harvard University scientists collected about two dozen plants and some fishes. In 1956, a botanist with the Institute of Jamaica, documented 38 species of plants (Swearingen, 1999).

NOAA scientists preparing to land on Navassa
NOAA scientists preparing to land on Navassa (Photo:NOAA)

In 1998, the Center for Marine Conservation (now called the "Ocean Conservancy") in Washington, D.C., organized a 12 day survey of the terrestrial and marine resources of Navassa. The survey party consisted of teams of individuals from the Center for Marine Conservation, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, New York Botanical Garden, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Avila College, Center for the Conservation and Ecodevelopment of Samaná Bay and Its Surroundings (CEBSE) and National Museum of Natural History (Dominican Republic), and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (CA). Scientists from the NOAA Fisheries Systematics Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, also conducted an ichthyological survey in 1999.

The Fantail of the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster on a scientific expedition to Navassa Island
The Fantail of the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster on a scientific expedition to Navassa Island (photo:NOAA)

NOAA’s National marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sponsored an expedition to Navassa Island from October 28 – November 12, 2002 that provided a baseline assessment of the composition and condition of the fishes and benthic organisms (Miller, 2003). The goals of these surveys were to inventory, as much as possible in the allotted time, the plants, terrestrial invertebrates, reptiles, birds, mammals, fishes, corals, and other marine invertebrates. Rock samples, soils, and other materials were collected to determine the age and geological composition and history of the island. Before these surveys, only one invertebrate (a spider) was known for the island and no published records of any insects existed (although two beetle specimens were located in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology).

Benthic and habitat data were also collected on a NMFS 2004 cruise to Navassa. Parameters included benthic cover, prevalence of coral diseases, location of fishing gear, coral density and sizes. Data were collected in situ by divers, some using digital cameras. Fishing gear locations were determined visually from boat transects.

In April, 2006, NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR, Beaufort, N.C.) organized a research cruise (NF-06-05)  which characterized the benthic and fish communities on the deep (28-34 meters) nearshore shelf of Navassa. Scientists also conducted high-resolution multibeam surveys for which the resulting bathymetry and back-scatter maps provided appropriate context for habitat assessment, and assessed the effects of the transient artisanal fishing on the fish and conch populations. The efforts of this cruise also included food web studies by stable isotope analyses of biological samples, installation of a temperature sensor network around the island to evaluate the potential for thermal coral bleaching events, and provide ground-truth sea surface temperature (SST) data  for satellite-sensed SST’s, and collection of georeferenced still and video photographs.