FAU Harbor Branch scientists are exploring Oculina reefs about six miles off the coast of the St. Lucie Inlet.
Using manned submersibles, they are searching for the reefs, which were last mapped three decades ago.
The purpose of the research is to determine whether bottom fishing has impacted the reefs.
Research Professor Joshua Voss was among the scientists who hunted for the Oculina Reef Friday.
"Here in Florida, we place a really high value on sport, recreational and commercial fishing. These are the reefs that provide habitats for those fish. If we lose the reef, we lose that resource of fish that we derive a lot of our economy, tourism and value from," Voss said.
The team has been searching for three days aboard the ship Baseline Explorer.
Friday, teams surveyed the sea floor at nearly 300 feet below the surface. Technical divers join the submarines to help better identify what researchers are seeing.
Researchers say they face several challenges including strong currents. They are also trying to locate the Oculina Reef with mapping data from 30 years ago.
Researchers are also working to update the map of the Oculina Reef of the coast of the St. Lucie Inlet.
Friday, Voss said they found rubble from the Oculina Reef, which he says could indicate damage.
Voss hopes to plan more trips to the sea floor in the near future to continue gathering data that could help put the Oculina Reefs in our area under a protected status.
That would mean fishermen would not be able to drop nets or lines to the sea floor in the area of the reef.
Right now, Oculina Reefs are protected from Fort Pierce to Jacksonville.
The 3-day research was made possible by an organization called Project Baseline. The group works to document ocean and sea life conditions worldwide so that researchers can better keep track of changes overtime.
Project Baseline has helped research teams and volunteers in nearly 60 countries.
Director Todd Kincaid explained the organization provides researchers with a research vessel they might otherwise have to obtain through help from the government.
He said "[Researchers] are able to get out to these environments on a more regular basis than they would otherwise be able to," Kincaid said.
Voss hopes fishermen will become educated about areas to avoid bottom fishing. "We can make sure they're in an area where they're not damaging coral."
I'm on a boat this morning! We're following researchers w/ Harbor Branch taking submarines to explore Oculina Reefs. pic.twitter.com/NIg8c9Eqhy