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.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Palmyra Atoll

By Paula Ayotte
Palmyra Atoll from above. Photograph by Stuart Sandin
Leaving Jarvis on our 400-mile northward transit to Palmyra, we’ve again crossed the equator and have arrived at this low-lying atoll. Palmyra is considered a true atoll because it has reefs encircling three sub-lagoons and supporting many islets. Having surveyed the fish populations here in 2006 and 2008, I’m curious to see if the milkfish (Chanos chanos), blacktip reef sharks (Carcharinus melanopterus), humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), schools of twinspot snapper (Lutjanus bojar), and manta rays (Manta birostris) that I remember will again make their way into my transect to be counted. Palmyra was discovered by the captain of the American ship Palmyra in 1802, but was not claimed until 1862 when ownership was asserted by Captain Zenas Bent and J.B. Wilkinson for the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Although Palmyra was also claimed by United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, it was not actively mined as approximately 180 inches of rainfall per year made it too wet for guano accumulation.

A school of Rainbow
Runner (Elagatis Bipinnulata).
Photograph by Danny Merritt
The British also claimed Palmyra in 1889. The Pacific Navigation Company bought Palmyra in 1885 and the company’s interests were conveyed in 1911 to Judge Henry Cooper via petition to the Land Court of the Territory of Hawai’i. Judge Cooper sold all of Palmyra except two islets to the Fullard-Leo family in 1922. In preparation for possible war, the US Navy attempted to lease Palmyra from the Fullard- Leo family in 1938. However, in 1939 the US Congress authorized construction of a naval base at Palmyra, and the US filed suit to annex the atoll. Up to 6,000 servicemen occupied Palmyra Atoll Naval Air Station during the World War II era. In 1947 the US Supreme Court, returned ownership of the atoll to the Fullard-Leo family. The 1959 Hawai’i Statehood Act specifically excluded Palmyra, and by that time US Navy occupation had ceased and all other federal presence at the atoll ended. Subsequently, the atoll remained abandoned except for resident caretakers supported by the Fullard-Leo family.
Manta Ray (Manta birostris),
Palmyra Atoll. Photograph by Chip Young
In 2000, Palmyra was purchased by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and in 2001 the USFWS purchased all of Palmyra from TNC except for the main island (Cooper) and established the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). In 2006, TNC completed construction of a research station at Cooper Island, where up to 20 scientists and staff can be housed. While we’re here we hope to have the chance to meet with several of the scientists currently on the atoll to discuss our common research goals and find out what their experiences have been working for weeks or months at a time on Palmyra.


  1. Butch Almberg-Florida, USAApril 11, 2010 at 12:54 AM

    Very much interested in your observations from Palmyra.

  2. Great photos and diagrams!! It really helps non-scientists understand. Cool!!