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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Microbial Mondays

By Zoe Dagan

Imagine a coral reef ecosystem in all its complexity. This turquoise sea hosts impressive coral gardens, aggregations of colorful fishes, hidden invertebrates, sleek sharks and giant turtles. When we close our eyes and envision such a tropical scene, we rarely, if ever, consider the microbial communities of a coral reef.

Microbes are a fundamental aspect of all marine ecosystems. Microbial agents (bacterium, fungus, viruses and protists) are also associated with reef-building corals. The abundance and function of the microbial community on reefs may also play an important role in coral health.

Coral health worldwide has declined in the last 20 years. Reasons for compromised coral health are numerous, and many are linked to humans and the way we affect our marine ecosystems. Examples of human induced impacts on oceans include marine pollution, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification. When coral health is compromised, microbes can infect corals and cause disease. Infectious coral diseases have increased in frequency and distribution since the 1970’s. These diseases continue to increase exponentially and have resulted in a significant loss of coral cover.

The global decline in coral cover has caused great concern. Coral diseases play a significant role in this decline. Researchers from around the world are devoting time and expertise to the study of coral disease. I am aboard the Hi’ialakai collecting and processing water samples for one of these researchers.
Hi’ialakai’s wetlab

Each day while diving I use 4 Niskin bottles to collect 2-liter reefwater samples. The shipboard processing of these samples takes about two hours. At the end of this Northwestern Hawaiian Islands research cruise, the processed water samples will be shipped to San Diego State University for further analysis. While the work is not glamorous, it is important. And the view isn’t too shabby either.


  1. I never knew how important coral was. We need a cure for this disease ASAP. Thank god we have brave scientists to get the samples needed to help them out. My son loves snorkeling through the reefs in Florida. I couldn’t imagine it being gone someday and how it would impact the rest of the microbial ecosystem!

  2. Zoe, kudos for a thoughtful, insightful article. Keep up the good work! How can we help the coral? Sincerely, Ward, from Humboldt State Univ. in California

  3. Thank you for your comment. We really appreciate all the support we've received from the people following our blog. Best wishes from the scientists on board the Hi`ialakai.