The Panama City Laboratory was originally established in northwest Florida as the Eastern Gulf Marine Laboratory of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, reclassified as the U.S. Department of Interior in 1966. In 1970, the laboratory was assimilated into the new U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With the donation of 11 acres of land from the Panama City Chamber of Commerce, construction of a new building with direct access to St. Andrews Bay, was completed in May 1972; to support research needs in benthic studies of invertebrate populations, artificial reefs, fishing gear selectivity, sea turtle conservation, and non-indigenous species. Current research supports shark population assessment, fish biology (age, growth, and reproduction), reef fish surveys, at-sea observer programs, marine protected areas and protected resources studies.
What We Do
We investigate the life history and habitat of economically important reef fishes, protected species, and coastal-pelagic sharks through dockside sampling, at-sea observer programs, cooperative research, marine protected area monitoring, and reef fish surveys. We collect and analyze data developed from otoliths, spines, vertebrae, and reproductive tissue for use in stock assessments. The research and studies conducted at the Lab are vital to the conservation of federally managed marine fisheries.
Shark Population Assessments
The Shark Population Assessment Group assess shark populations in U.S. Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters through demographic modeling, stock assessments, and biological research. Biological research includes several aspects of elasmobranch life history such as age and growth, bioenergetics, essential fish habitat, diet and foraging ecology, distribution and movement patterns, and reproduction. In addition, the group is migrating to ecosystem modeling and ecosystem-based fishery management.
Fish Biology - Age, Growth, and Reproduction
Since the 1980s, the laboratory's focus has been on high profile and economically important marine fish species managed largely from federal waters within the Gulf of Mexico. This includes several reef fishes (snappers, groupers) and certain coastal pelagic species (mackerels, tunas), but the potential species needs list is large. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act governs much of what we do in the fishery science and management business. Understanding a stock's status is dependent on how well the age structure of a fish population is measured or inferred. Increasingly, we address ageing needs in a production fashion—that is, verify and validate how we interpret growth structures, estimate ageing precision and error, and process an ever increasing number of samples annually. In addition basic fish reproduction studies are conducted to determine specific information such as age of maturity, spawning frequency, and spawning biomass, to be used in stock assessments. As the number of managed species grows, so to does our collaborations with other federal, state, and university laboratories to investigate all life history parameters. Therefore, aging fish is an important activity for the goal of maintaining sustainable fishery harvests.
Reef Fish Surveys
Reef fish surveys examine annual abundance, age structure, spatial and temporal patterns, demographics, and community structure of areas 10 to 50 meters in depth, offshore of Destin, Florida to Crystal River, Florida. Beginning in 2004, a survey of reef fishes on the inner shelf natural hard bottom habitat in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico was conducted using chevron fish traps. A year later, stationary video cameras were added to the survey for collecting visual data on relative abundance and species composition. All trap-caught fish are identified, counted, and measured to maximum total and fork lengths. Catch per unit effort is then computed for each species as numbers caught per trap hour, to assess habitat health in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.
Marine Protected Areas
The Panama City Laboratory has conducted research on the efficacy of Marine Protected Areas as a fishery management tool since 2001. To evaluate the effectiveness of the marine reserve concept, research is focused in five areas: West Florida Shelf MPAs, northeastern Gulf of Mexico along the West Florida shelf; South Atlantic Bight, between southern North Carolina and northern Florida; Oculina Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC), east of the Florida coast; Pulley Ridge HAPC, northwest of the Dry Tortugas in Florida; and Deep-Sea Coral HAPCs, between southern North Carolina and southern Florida. Efficacy tests are based on comparisons of the MPAs with adjacent open-to-fishing areas containing similar habitat. The fishing regulations in all these areas are designed to protect and enhance populations of economically valuable reef fish, primarily gag grouper, in the Gulf of Mexico and seven species of grouper and tilefish in the South Atlantic. All of these fishes are slow growing, long-lived species, and several are overfished or are undergoing overfishing based on recent stock assessments. Research in all areas is ongoing and the MPA surveys are in different stages of the evaluation process.
Education and Outreach
The Panama City Laboratory provides hands-on educational opportunities throughout the year for students and educators to supplement marine science curriculum or as a stand-alone program to increase environmental stewardship and Ocean and Climate Literacy. We offer touch tanks and beach seines between April and October to provide students with the opportunity to interact with their diverse marine environment and learn the importance of seagrass beds present in the St. Andrews Bay. The laboratory works closely with local school districts, community organizations, state parks, and academic institutions to encourage students to learn more about marine science and related STEM fields.
Diving Activities and Research
NOAA divers work throughout the world’s oceans and coastal areas—from the crystal clear waters of a pristine marine sanctuary to the murky and polluted waters of a congested harbor—to further NOAA’s mission of “Science, Service, and Stewardship”. In effect, any endeavor at NOAA that requires underwater observations, testing, or installation of equipment is most likely performed by NOAA divers. Internal projects have included: deployment of acoustic telemetry to monitor fish migration patterns; habitat ground truthing of acoustic mapping data; and the installation and recovery of gear. External projects have included: ship husbandry on visiting vessels; support of NOAA projects in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Alaska; and support of unclassified U.S. Navy projects. Panama City is home to all U.S. Navy dive training (conducted at the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center), as well as the Navy Experimental Diving Unit which tests and evaluates diving, hyperbaric, life-support systems and procedures, and conducts research and development in biomedical and environmental physiology. Due to our close proximity, our laboratory has an agreement to treat any injured NOAA diver in the Navy hyperbaric recompression chambers.
Ron Hill, Ph.D.
Director of the Panama City Laboratory, Southeast Fisheries Science Center.