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.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Swain's Island

by Kerry Grimshaw
Swain's Atoll (Photograph by Kerry Grimshaw)
This morning we started work at the last of the islands in the Territory of American Samoa: Swains Island. Although Swains is part of American Samoa, geologically and geographically it is an atoll in the Tokelau Archipelago. Swains Island is the northernmost island in the Territory of American Samoa and lies about 350 km (220 mi) north-northwest of Tutuila.

It is thought that the first European to discover the island was Pedro Fernandez de Queiros in 1606 and named it Isla de la Gente Hermosa (“island of the beautiful people”). After that the island was unvisited by Europeans until 1840 when Capt. W.C. Swains of New Bedford, Massachusetts visited and thinking he was the first to land there, he named it Swain’s Island. The British Capt. Turnbull also claimed to have discovered the island and sold Swain's Island to the American Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr. In 1856 Eli and his Samoan wife Malia moved to the island and claimed it with the US flag (as a semi-independent proprietary settlement of the Jennings family). Swain's Island was also claimed by the US Government under the Guano Islands Act in 1860. The ownership of the island was passed down to Eli Jr. who managed the copra plantation which was established by his father. Upon Eli Jr.’s death, the US government on March 4, 1925 granted the right of administration jointly to his children Ann (the estate) and Alexander (the island) while concurrently making it officially part of American Samoa by annexation. The island is currently inhabited by 4-30 people at any given time in order to retain private ownership by the Jennings family and as part of the Territory of American Samoa.

Swains Island as seen from space
Swains as an atoll is unusual due to its unbroken circular island which encloses a central “brackish” lagoon. Swains has a total area of 1.9 sq km (0.7 sq mi) and is approximately equivalent to 380 football fields. The ring-shaped island is still encircled with coconut trees although the copra plantation is no longer active. The outer edge of the atoll consists of coral reef flats that are awash at low tide. CRED multibeam mapping surveys in 2006 revealed that like Ta’u there are little or no shallow banks surrounding the island and the reef descends to abyssal depths less than 1 km off shore. After our 20 hour transit to Swains we’ll be spending the next 3 days working and monitoring the coral reefs here.

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