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 14, 2010

What is a Chief Scientist?

By Peter Vroom

I have been a scientist working at the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) for 9 years, and started serving as Chief Scientist aboard our Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) research expeditions in 2004. When our program was smaller, the Chief Scientist had to start preparing for research expeditions months in advance by writing preliminary cruise instructions, finding staff available for our 1-3 month long cruises either internally from CRED or else from partnering agencies, writing permits, deciding on cruise itineraries, making sure that all participating scientists had their medical forms and diving qualifications up to date, and dealing with myriad other issues. Fortunately, our program has grown substantially, and we now have staff to help the Chief Scientist with the majority of these pre-cruise operations. For this particular cruise to the NWHI, many thanks need to go to Kevin Lino, Bonnie DeJoseph, and Faith Opatrny for their many hours of work on permits, staffing, and pre-cruise instructions.
Scientists from the REA teams assembled in the “dry lab” before morning launch. Clockwise from front left: Erin Looney, Rodney Withall, Zoe Dagan, Kerry Grimshaw, Scott Godwin, Paula Ayotte (our shipboard “Rockette”), Peter Vroom, and Cristi Richards.
While at sea, the Chief Scientist typically works out in the field collecting data alongside our research divers. I am an algal biologist, and study the plant communities associated with reef systems. On this particular cruise, I fulfill several roles depending on the needs of the individual teams. For instance, so far I have served as a safety diver for our oceanography team, I have served as a Line Point Intercept (LPI) diver collecting benthic percent cover information for our benthic REA team, and I’ve served as an Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS) processor for our ARMS team. Although all the roles I fulfill are interesting, I was particularly fascinated by the ARMS. These structures will be discussed in significantly greater detail by Scott Godwin in the September 16 blog; however, ARMS are essentially boxes with many compartments in which cryptic invertebrates settle. While taking these boxes apart, we found many species of brittle stars, sea cucumbers, tunicates, bryozoans, crabs, worms, snails, oysters, shrimp, and even fish. The list of organisms is staggering, and the diversity and array of colors of the animals was beautiful.
Getting ready to launch HI-2. Kaylyn McCoy, Peter Vroom, and Cristi Richards. On this particular morning, Vroom and Richards served as safety divers for the oceanography team. However, because of weight limitations associated with launching the small boast, they were launched in HI-2, and then transferred to the crowded oceanography boat once away from the Hi`ialakai.
After a day of diving, most scientists on board have dinner and begin entering their data into the ship’s database. For me, I eat dinner, and then hold a meeting with all the team leads to review the operations that occurred that day, and discuss operations for the next day. On this cruise, the team leads are: Danny Merritt (oceanography), Edmund Coccagna (towed diver surveys), Rodney Withall (benthic REA surveys), Kaylyn McCoy (fish REA surveys), and Annette DesRochers (data management). Based on their input, I record all the types of surveys that occurred and incorporate them into a cruise report, which I work on every night. After meeting with the team leads, I meet with the Hi`ialakai’s Operations Officer, Tony Perry, to present our work plan for the next day. Together, we decide on the safest place for the Hi`ialakai to launch small boats that is close enough to our work area so that long transits by the small boats can be avoided.
Evening planning meeting involving Chief Scientist and Team Leads. Clockwise from from left: Edmund Coccagna (towed diver team lead), Rodney Withall (benthic team lead), Kaylyn McCoy (fish team lead), Peter Vroom (chief scientist), and Danny Merritt (oceanography team lead).
Being in charge of a RAMP expedition is fairly straightforward if everything is running smoothly. However, while at sea, rarely do things ever always run smoothly! In addition to the normal daily routine of the Chief Scientist discussed above, numerous other unplanned issues take up my time, but also help keep my days interesting. One this particular cruise, we have had several unexpected issues arise. As one example, ARMS deployments are fairly new, and this is only the second research trip where we are starting to collect and process ARMS. During our last cruise to American Samoa, the ARMS processing protocol we used generated ethanol waste, which was effectively and safely disposed of at sea in a manner that did not harm wildlife or impact the environment. However, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument has stricter, no discharge, rules than American Samoa, and we realized after we departed that we would not be able to dispose of our ethanol waste in the same manner as American Samoa. Our ARMS team (Kerry Grimshaw and Scott Godwin), the CO, and myself met several time to try and find alternate ways to dispose of the waste ethanol, store the waste ethanol on board the ship, or else change the ARMS protocol in order not to generate ethanol waste. With the aid of our Division Chief, Rusty Brainard, and numerous colleagues involved in ARMS research around the world, we figured out a slight change to the protocol that eliminated all ethanol waste, yet still allowed for effective processing of the ARMS. Not only did we creatively find a way to comply with important environmental regulations, but we potentially devised a method that eliminates waste altogether, which is always a good thing!

During and after the cruise, the Chief Scientist is responsible for writing and submitting a final cruise report that lists and discusses all the accomplishments that occurred during the research expedition. Considering that our expedition collects all the types of data listed below, you can imagine how important it is to make sure the cruise report is well organized and methodical. Otherwise it would be very difficult to understand exactly what we accomplished.

This CRED RAMP cruise is collecting:

REA Benthic Surveys:
• Digital still photos of overall site character and typical benthos
• Digital images of benthic organisms from photoquadrat surveys
• Quantitative assessments of benthic composition from line-point-intercept surveys
• Algal voucher specimens necessary for algal species identification
• Field notes of algal species diversity and relative abundance
• Number of coral colonies by genus, within belt transects of known area, and overall coral colony density
• Size-class metrics of corals within belt transects of known area
• Tissue samples of diseased corals for histopathological analysis
• Samples of diseased algae for histopathological analysis
• Digital photographs of diseased corals and algae
• Field notes on signs of coral bleaching or disease
• Assessment of calcification rates from collected cores of massive reef building corals

REA Fish Surveys:
• Number, species, and estimated sizes of all fishes observed within a 7.5-m radius from stationary-point-count surveys
• Visual estimates of benthic cover, habitat type, and habitat complexity
• Digital still photographs to characterize benthic coral reef community cover
• Digital photographs of rare or interesting fish species
• Species presence checklists for estimates of fish community diversity

Towed-diver Surveys:
• Digital photographs and video of benthic habitats
• Temperature data
• Counts of non-coral invertebrates, including crown-of-thorns seastars, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins
• Quantitative assessments of large (≥ 50 cm in total length) reef fishes to species level
• Quantitative and qualitative assessments of key protected species and species of concern, including cetaceans, sea turtles, and rare fishes (< 50 cm total length)
• Benthic habitat characterization

Shipboard Oceanography:
• Deepwater CTD profiles to 500 m
• CTD sensor includes dissolved oxygen, turbidity, fluorescence and pH measurements
• Chl-a and nutrient concentrations from water samples collected at variable depths
• Transects of profiles of ocean current velocity and direction collected using a shipboard ADCP unit
• Solar radiation, air temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction
• Surface pCO2 measurements
• Surface temperature and salinity measurements

Nearshore Oceanography from Small Boats:
• Shallow-water CTD profiles to a depth of ~ 30 m (water samples not taken)
• Shallow-water CTD profiles at all CAU sites with dissolved oxygen and fluorescence measurements
• Chl-a and nutrient concentrations from water samples collected in concert with shallow-water (≤ 30 m) CTD casts
• Chl-a, nutrient, salinity and carbonate chemistry samples from all CAU sites
• DIC and salinity concentrations from water samples collected in concert with shallow-water (≤ 30 m) CTD casts

Moored Biological Instruments:
• Environmental acoustics of reefs, marine mammals, and boat traffic from EARs
• Assessment of taxonomic diversity of coral reef species by collection of invertebrate specimens from retrieved ARMS
• Acoustic Doppler Profiler data
• Location of Calcification Acidification Units (CAUs) deployed
• Remote Auto Sampler – temporary high resolution carbonate chemistry

Moored Oceanographic Instruments:
• Sea-surface and subsurface temperature at variable depths
• Sea-surface and subsurface salinity at variable depths
• Spectral wave and tidal elevation
• Single-point and directional ocean currents
• Subsurface pH measurements at variable depths
• Surface air temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and ultraviolet radiation

Being Chief Scientist requires that I understand the science and goals behind the different types of sampling we are conducting. If bad weather prevents us from diving for one or more days, the Chief Scientist has to understand the implications of missing data to the overall statistical sampling strategy, and then make the best decisions possible to insure that we continue to collect the best data possible. Being Chief Scientist is personally rewarding for me because I know that the data we are collecting is helping to make a difference to understand our oceans, and potentially mitigate the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.

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