Deep-Pelagic Fauna

Full Title: Trends and drivers of faunal abundance of the offshore Gulf of Mexico: Narrowing the data gap in the Gulf’s largest ecosystem component

This project will identify long-term trends in fishes, shrimps, cephalopods and other fauna in the deep-pelagic Gulf of Mexico (open ocean midwaters beyond the continental shelf, from just below the surface to just above the bottom) and provide this information to resource managers responsible for the numerous species that rely on deep-pelagic fauna as prey, including marine mammals.

The Team: Tracey Sutton (lead investigator, Nova Southeastern University,, Kevin M. Boswell (Florida International University), Heather Bracken-Grissom (Florida International University), Tamara Frank (Nova Southeastern University), Mathew Johnson (Nova Southeastern University), Rosanna Boyle (née Milligan) (Nova Southeastern University), Daniel Hahn (NOAA Office of Response and Restoration), Heather Judkins (University of South Florida), Jon Moore (Florida Atlantic University), John Quinlan (NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center), Isabel Romero (University of South Florida), Michael Vecchione (NOAA National Systematics Laboratory), and Danté Fenolio (San Antonio Zoo)

Technical Monitors: Mandy Karnauskas ( and Kris Benson (

Science Program Liaison: Caitlin Young (

Federal Program Officer: Frank Parker (

Research Area: Multiple species

Award Amount: $2,794,147

Award Period: This project began in September 2019 and will end in May 2024.

Why we care: The deep-pelagic habitat in the Gulf of Mexico is one of four ‘hyperdiverse’ deep-pelagic ecoregions on Earth. It is also the largest and least known habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the Gulf’s offshore diversity comes from juvenile stages of coastal fauna, including managed reef fishes, demonstrating a connection between the Gulf’s inshore and offshore waters. Deep-pelagic fauna are the main prey of the majority of marine mammal species in the Gulf, as well as other oceanic apex predators like tunas and billfishes. The deep-pelagic fauna is also involved in transporting carbon from surface waters to the deep ocean where it can be sequestered.

What we are doing: This project uses midwater nets and acoustics (i.e. sound waves) to sample the deep-pelagic region. By analyzing the data collected, the project team is able to quantify trends across the Gulf of Mexico and over time. The project is also developing baselines for deep-pelagic fauna in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the project team analyzes temperature, salinity, and ocean circulation data to locate the Gulf of Mexico loop current and the Mississippi River plume and identify key drivers of deep-pelagic community structure and abundance. Finally, the project is investigating overall population, size frequency, petroleum contamination, and genetic diversity of the deep-pelagic fauna and generating an identification guide for deep-pelagic fauna in the Gulf of Mexico.

Expected Outcome: This project is producing assessments of the abundance of the deep-pelagic Gulf of Mexico fauna to support resource managers’ capacity to restore this fauna as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill natural resource damage assessment process, establishing prey fields for marine mammals and apex predators, providing recruitment measurements for managed coastal fishes, and refining computer models of the Gulf of Mexico.