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.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Approaching French Frigate Shoals

By Kerry Grimshaw

After 2 and ½ days of transiting through vast blue ocean with no sight of land, we have arrived at our first destination for this cruise – French Frigate Shoals!

French Frigate Shoals (FFS) is the largest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was named by the French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse, who nearly lost two frigates (ships) when attempting to navigate through the treacherous shoals. The atoll is made up of a 20-mile long crescent-shaped reef, twelve sandbars, and the 120’ high La Perouse Pinnacle, the lone reminder of its volcanic origins. Near dawn or dusk the pinnacle has been said to have the appearance of a sailing ship, often attracting approaching ships that then subsequently foundered on the shoals and reefs surrounding it.
120’ high La Perouse Pinnacle, French Frigate Shoals
FFS first played a part in WW2 when it was included in the Japanese plans to refuel seaplanes from submarines in the sheltered waters of the atoll, as part of their larger campaign to conquer Midway Island. By mid 1942, increasing U.S. naval activity in the area prevented further Japanese use. After the Battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy built a Naval Air Station on Tern Island, enlarging the island sufficiently to support a 3,300 feet landing strip and ramp area sufficient for 24 single engine aircraft. On the little bit of remaining land, partially buried Quonset huts were erected to serve as housing. They were painted white to blend in with the surrounding coral rubble that makes up the island. Commissioned in 1943 the station was an auxiliary unit of NAS Pearl Harbor and it served as an emergency landing strip and refueling stop for fighter squadrons transiting between Hawaii and Midway providing surveillance of the surrounding area.

After the end of WW2, Tern Island was washed over by a tidal wave in 1946, after which the base was closed by the Navy. Then in 1952, the Coast Guard built a LORAN navigation beacon tower on the island, along with a 20 man supporting facility. The runway was used for a weekly mail and supply flight. The Coast Guard installation continued in operation until 1979.

Tern Island also played a role during the early days of space flight. During 1961-63, the Pacific Missile Range (PMR) had a portable tracking station located at one end of the island. PMR tracked not only the US Air Force Discoverer spacecraft, but also the Soviet Union's space efforts, including their first manned mission.

In recent years Tern Island became part of the Hawaiian & Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge station occupies the former Coast Guard buildings and is occupied by small groups conducting research. The runway continues to be used for occasional personnel transfer and supply flights.

While FFS has quite an extensive and interesting history, we are looking forward to getting in the water and monitoring its impressive marine ecosystem. The reef complex at FFS hosts the highest coral diversity of all the Hawaiian Islands with 41 species of stony corals documented. FFS is also home to more than 600 species of invertebrates, more than 150 algal species and numerous species of fish. In addition the many islets of FFS provide nesting grounds for 18 species of sea birds and over 90% of the threatened Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. FFS islets also provide critical habitat for the largest sub-population on endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Stay tuned for reports on what we see here!
The Giant Trevally, also known as Ulua in Hawaii, is one of the largest of all jacks and is an important top-level predator distributed throughout the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific
Hawaiian monk seals sunbathing on a sandbar at French Frigate Shoals

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