A Better Understanding of Coral Reef Ecosystems

Pelagic predators such as these barracuda, Sphyraena qenie, are part of the coral reef ecosystem in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by Kevin Lino).
A team of scientists have embarked from Hawai'i on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems at Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The overarching objective is to better understand the coral reef ecosystems of these areas, many of which are seldom explored. The research expedition is part of a regular monitoring program, conducted by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), headquartered in Honolulu, Hawai'i. The expedition is supported by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and involves extensive cooperation among NOAA scientists and research partners, including the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego State University, and the Papahānaumaokuākea Marine National Monument.

The research expedition will be carried out from February 27 to May 24, 2012 aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai. Under the leadership of Chief Scientists Dr. Jill Zamzow, Dr. Bernardo Vargas-Angél, and Jamison Gove, a diverse team of researchers will be conducting multidisciplinary coral reef ecosystem surveys, assessing the status of fishes, corals, algae, marine invertebrates, and the oceanographic conditions in which these organisms exist. The scientific data collected during the three-month research expedition will enable informed and effective implementation of ecosystem-based management and conservation strategies for coral reef ecosystems, helping to ensure their protection for generations to come.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fish Tales

by Kara Osada-D'Avella
For this first leg of the expedition, our fish team is made up entirely of women – but no fish about it, we are out to take on the seas and collect data no matter the conditions; sunny or rainy; rough or calm. Our team lead, Paula Ayotte, is on her third trip to these waters along with me (Kara Osada-D’Avella), Jonatha Giddens and Emily Donham. As reports of over-fishing worldwide have topped headlines, concern for the possibility of over-fishing occurring on coastal reefs has also been increasing. According to recent scientific reports, over-fishing on coral reefs may be as high as 36%, with many high-valued species facing the possibility of localized extinction.

Throughout our three-month cruise, researchers will have a unique opportunity to survey diverse locales ranging from the extreme remoteness of Howland and Baker Islands to heavily populated areas of American Samoa. Our data will also be combined with surveys from the Northwestern and Main Hawaiian Islands, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to provide an overview of the status and trends of coral reef fish populations in US Pacific waters. Our fish survey method uses a stratified random design where our survey sites are chosen within three depth zones: shallow (1-20 feet), mid (21-60 feet) and deep (61-100 ft) and within each of three general habitat types; fore reef, back reef and lagoon. By using this type of method, we are able to get a holistic view of the fish assemblage at each island we visit.

This is my second trip to Johnston Atoll. During the previous expedition in 2008, high winds and rough seas kept us out of the water for all but two days of the six we had planned. This year the weather cooperated and we were able to survey each of the 5 1/2 days we were at Johnston, allowing us to see much more of the reef environment. I found fish populations at Johnston to be similar to my experiences in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the Main Hawaiian Islands, we saw sharks on many dives with a maximum of 10 sharks on a single dive. We also saw many large black jacks and other apex predators which is a good sign. On my last dive with Jonatha we were privileged to jump in on a reef with hundreds of spawning blue-lined surgeons. For me it was a unique experience to be in such a large school of fish; something you just don’t get to witness very often in less remote areas.

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