The Northern Gulf of Mexico Cooperative Institute will continue and expand as appropriate an integrated research program for the northeast Gulf of Mexico Big Bend Region founded in interwoven modeling, experimental, and observational enterprises. The overarching component of the effort is based in a hyper-fine resolution model of the Big Bend Region (BBR), including an intra-coastal component. This model will serve several local purposes, including the synthesis of the various regional Cooperative Institute (CI) research programs within a common framework. Our intent is to develop a model integrating physical and ecological processes that will evaluate fisheries productivity in the region.

FSU will also make observations in representative, but diverse, environments characteristic of the BBR. These environments-including shallow, seagrass beds, and deeper (10- 20 m) reefs and sandy habitats, from coastal runoff-dominated brackish waters to coastal, clear-water environments-are linked both vertically and horizontally through physical and trophic features. The sampling strategies include physical oceanographic, physical meteorological, biological, and chemical components. Resulting observations will be used to constrain the regional modeling effort, to provide it with forcing and boundary data, and to test the set of hypotheses outlined below. The question set proposed by the FSU group responds to the overarching CI objectives and to interests in collaboration with NOAA line offices.

We hypothesize BBR fisheries, in general, respond to regional climatic fluctuations in precipitation and the hydrological cycle, as well as to interactions with the off-shore coastal zone. These ideas are being tested using gag as a model species, because of its regional economic significance and NOAA's charge to manage it. We will examine the impact of terrestrial and shallow-water climatological conditions on juvenile gag growth rate and diet in BBR seagrass beds where they settle after an extended pelagic larval stage. We will also investigate the role of shallow reefs as secondary nurseries for juvenile gag after they leave the seagrass beds in early fall. Lastly, we will also test the hypothesis that off-shore migration in the fall of prey species in the fall fuels coastal gag grouper reproduction. All three aspects of the gag grouper project are of considerable interest to the NOAA NMFS Southeast Science Center and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the entity responsible for fisheries management in this region.

We further hypothesize that the exceptionally clear regional waters elevate benthic photosynthesis such that it is comparable to water-column photosynthesis. This idea is being examined by our observational program. Implications of the results connect to the impact of water-quality fluctuations and the proper bio-geochemical modeling of the region. This project is of direct relevance to ecosystems-based management.