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, September 10, 2010

I wanted to be a fireman, or a dentist, or a PHYCOLOGIST

By Rodney Withall

When most people think of surveying coral reefs, they often can’t visualize all that is involved or the enormous number of observations that make up an integrated Coral Reef observation system such as being conducted on this cruise to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Oceanographers are deploying and recovering instrumentation that record physical parameters as well as collecting water for chemical and biochemical analysis, fish biologists are recording fish abundance and biomass, coral biologists are recording the abundance and diversity of corals along with their state of health (healthy vs. bleached or diseased), and phycologists are recording the abundance and diversity of macroalgae.
There are many disciplines of research within the field of marine biology, and thus many different roles that each diver fulfills in our task to survey and study change within reef ecosystems on temporal and spatial scales. I’m fortunate enough to be one of the rare and highly prized phycologists. Often mistaken with Psychologist, someone whom helps you deal with personal issues and mental disorders, my profession is very different. “Phykos” is the Greek word for algae and “ologist” is of course one who studies a particular subject. Studying algae for a living and visiting places like the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a pretty satisfying way to live. Algal taxonomy and understanding the diversity of marine macroalgae is of particular interest to me and is facilitated by our normal monitoring program that takes us to remote islands and atolls throughout the Pacific.

Algae are often collected, identified, and pressed on herbarium paper to create voucher specimens that serve as examples or records of a given species. Since only a few individuals of each algal species are required to create a voucher specimen, this can be done with virtually no impact on the population or the environment from which the algae are collected. In some cases an algal specimen is collected that differs (perhaps ever so slightly) from all those recorded in the literature and future study results in the discovery and description of a new species. This is not uncommon in science, particularly the field of algal taxonomy.
I was especially excited to have the opportunity to dive La Perouse pinnacle while at French Frigate Shoals. In the 10-years of reef surveys in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by our division, only three biological species completely new to science have been discovered and described in literature, all being species of marine algae, two collected at La Perouse, and all discovered by the chief scientist of this cruise. The two rare collections from La Perouse became known as Scinaia huismannii (named after the phycologist John Huisman) and Acrosymphyton brainardii (named after our division chief Rusty Brainard). In the numerous visits to French Frigate Shoals since these discoveries, these two species have rarely been collected. As a result, specimens or vouchers of these two relatively new species are quite rare.
Diving around La Perouse is not only one of the favorite dive sites of many working on the ship, but for me, also translates to an opportunity to (1) discover and observe the two previously mentioned species in the field, and (2) discover that this location may have more than just two new species of algae, and maybe I could discover one today.

We descended to our REA site at La Perouse, the same site where S. huismannii and A. brainardii were collected 10-years earlier. In addition to documenting the percent cover of each coral genus and algal species, part of our survey protocol involves recording macroalgal diversity at a given site within 5 meters of the transect line. If these two algal species or even a new species are present at this site, then this is where I’ll find it. I searched an area 5 meters wide on both sides of the transect over its entire length (50 meters) then expanded to include additional habitats such as overhangs and dark crevices (preferred habitat of red algae). My search turned up the greatest diversity of red algae that I have recorded since our surveys began at French Frigate Shoals including some rare observations. However, unfortunately after almost 80-minutes underwater, my search became limited by an exhausted air supply and I had to surface without finding additional examples of S. huismannii, A. brainardii, or finding something potentially new that I could describe and name after someone whom I thought to be influential.

Despite not finding particular seaweeds of interest or making new discoveries at La Perouse on this particular expedition, this REA site still hosts high coral and algal diversity, healthy coral populations including abundant Acropora. There are many days of diving ahead of us on this cruise at many sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that have similar potential for new and exciting discoveries. I look forward to every dive where I’ll continue to keep an eye out for cryptic species or something new and interesting while conducting my underwater surveys.

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