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, November 5, 2010

Behind The Scenes

by Julia Ehses 

     Today is not only the last day of the expedition HA1008, but it is also the last day of a long field season. The CRED research cruises usually last from March trough November. This is a long time especially for the scientists who come on and off the ship for month long adventures but the Hi’ialakai is home for those who work the whole season, and take part in every expedition, and repair and stock the ship during in-ports. I’m referring to the crewmembers of the Hi’ialakai who spend the majority of the year away from their family and friends.  The crewmembers share a big portion of daily responsibilities on the NOAA research Vessel Hi’ialakai.
     Seven NOAA Corps officers control the ship and find the safest and most comfortable path by navigating trough rough waters, wind and weather.
     Six engineers operate the ship while monitoring, fixing and controlling 4 engines plus one emergency generator, the steering system as well as the air conditioning, water treatment systems, and much more. The daily checklist for the engineering staff is very long.
     The electronics technician or ET does the maintenance and repair of all the electronics including the navigation systems, data acquisition systems, and communications that allow the ship to stay connected to the rest of the world from many miles offshore.
     A survey technician is also onboard. She supports the scientists and facilitates scientific operations including CTD, pCO2 and water column properties measurements as well as running the seafloor mapping system.
     The dive chamber operator is an important crew member particularly if a dive accident were to occur. He administers and supervises any hyperbaric treatment required. A member of the National Health Service, affectionately referred to as “Doc” is also one of the officers and takes care of any injury and sickness that may occur on board.
     One of many responsibilities of the eight deck-team members is small boat operation. This means launching 5 small boats every day, driving these boats through rough waters to bring the divers to their survey sites, and recovering the boats every afternoon. Watching the team launch and recover the boats is like watching a well-choreographed performance. The safety of many is at stake with cranes lifting the heavy loads, lines in tension, and pinch points galore.  Each member of the deck crew knows and executes their role perfectly time and time again.

     And of course all this work couldn’t be done without sufficient nutrients. The Chief Steward and his staff do an incredible job taking care of hungry bellies with a huge range of cooked, boiled, baked, steamed and fried specialties. You might be asking, “Fresh fruits and veggies every day…..is it magic?” Well, it may not be magic, but creativity and a talent for management is certainly required. Many sailors say that the role of the Chief Steward is the most important job on the ship because good food equates with high morale and a job well done.
     This is just a glance into the variety of jobs on board but one thing is for sure; A successful expedition is like a big puzzle where everyone (both scientists and crew) represents the small pieces that come together to form the whole big picture.
     A big THANKS to the crew who, once again, have brought the scientists safely back to shore.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

You just can’t win them all.

by Oliver Vetter

I like oceanography. I’ve been studying it and doing field work my entire adult life, it has offered me amazing experiences as well as a rewarding, challenging and exciting career but there are a few things I’ve learned along the way... like it or not oceanography, and particularly the study and practice of field oceanography, is wrought with failure, occasional danger, frustration and mistakes. There is the old oceanography tale on an ocean wide cruise of the Professor leaving his graduate student in charge of a mapping instrument while he went for dinner, in days before high-frequency, high powered, computer aided instruments. The student was instructed to sit and watch the instrument and GPS. The instructions were simple; click the ‘on’ button once for every minute passed. An hour later the professor returns to find the instrument off and the student is sitting with his feet up. The professor asks, rather angrily why the student wasn’t concentrating on the GPS. “It ran out of memory after 45 minutes” the student replied. The professor, in rising horror and disbelief, repeats his instructions with the vital amendment: “click the ‘on’ button once for every minute Longitude passed…”

But a large part of oceanographic mishaps have to do with the inherent nature of the medium in which we, as oceanographers, spend much of our time: The ebullient, treacherous, unpredictable and seemingly endlessly challenging ocean. The first hurdle is that the moment perfectly well-made tools, knives, shackles, dive gear, boots, clothing, your own skin, anything electrical or any other article you might take for granted hits salt water, the timer starts: If you don’t have it washed packed and rinsed in ‘x’ number of minutes or hours, it will fail, break, tear, short or simply drop off and sink. Nothing is sacred and nothing is spared from the inevitability of corrosion. The second issue is weather and subsequent ocean state. What might be a simple operation at 8 AM, becomes a high-current torrent of white water with fire-hose like wind-spray by mid afternoon, making positioning, boat handling and even moving around the deck of a 18 ft boat likened to a sickness inducing dance on the back of a bucking horse. Just finding the correct position to drop divers becomes a juggling game of how far upstream to drop so they hit the mark, how much time to give them on the surface etc. To shed some light on these observations I will give an example from this very cruise. The oceanography team on the Hi’ialakai cruise HA1008 was requested by some colleagues to help them out by collecting some of their moorings from around Kauai. Each mooring was in approximately 100 ft depth and simply required a diver to find the mooring and remove the instrument from the mooring line with a large pair of bolt cutters. Simple enough.

Day one of this particular operation we had everything we needed; a GPS position, a basic understanding of what was happening, 28% oxygen NITROX gas for the deep dive and the 4 ft bolt cutters in hand. The wind was blowing about 25-30 knots by this point, so we knew there’d be some current at the surface so dropped a little upstream to try and hit the point correctly. We roll off the small boat Rubber Duck and quickly headed downward to get off the surface and out of the chop. At around 60 feet we could start to see the bottom and the current was lessening with distance from the surface wind. All was just fine but one small thing: there was no mooring. We started a search pattern, found some hard substrate, and dropped to 110 feet. We continued the search… and found nothing. I’ve no doubt the mooring was there, somewhere, but at 110 feet you’re limited on bottom time, we had about 10 minutes total, limited by nitrogen toxicity and volume of air. We return to the small boat empty handed.

There was no time for a repeat, these dives were one shot deals; particularly since we had special gas mixtures there was no time to return to the same place on a different day.

Day two and another mooring attempt, this time on the north side of Kauai and the weather was better. I was driving the boat and dropped the team on the site and watched them disappear beneath the waves. Expecting at any moment to see the mooring come to the surface I waited… and waited. The divers returned. This time they found the mooring; a success! However, the instrument that was supposed to be attached was gone with only a loop in the line to show it had ever been there. Failure again.

Empty mooring line at 79 feet.
Day three and one more mooring; this time on the east side of Kauai. Again, we dropped with our bolt cutters and spare air sources aiding our descent. Quickly we found the upper buoy of the mooring and hoping for better luck. Dropping to the bottom, at 120 ft, we find the instrument, real success!? I raise the bolt cutters to remove the instrument and triumphantly return to the surface… but it was not to be so simple. The bolt cutters were either old or poorly set, the cutting blades didn’t close all the way so wouldn’t cut the wire rope regardless of how hard I tried. Time was running low. We removed the instrument but had to leave the mooring to become part of the reef; it was already heavily grown over. We retrieved the instrument, but this was one small triumph in a succession of time consuming failures, on one of the most basic of operations.

On a typical year the oceanography team retrieves and replaces hundreds of scientific instruments of one type or other, through precise metadata (GPS points, descriptions) and well-executed and practiced operations, but for some reason, this particular series of events just didn’t work in our favor. And, after the ranting and raving and calculation of losses, you just have to learn, smile, and give the ocean a little more respect.

Bolt Cutters and spare air.......ready for the dive

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It is day 25 on our 30 day research expedition

by  Bernardo Vargas Angel

The HA 1008, Main Hawaiian Islands RAMP cruise has unfolded successfully. In addition to having benign weather and sea conditions, daily operations have run quite smoothly, no doubt the result of the high level of training, experience, and professionalism of all aboard. Equally important to this success is the positive and up-beat attitude of all involved, and the strong cooperative spirit, in spite of many of us having been out here for a long time. It's not always easy to keep the pace of long work days, with just a few breaks.
Daily small boat launch with team of divers
So far we have visited and completed work around the islands of Hawai’i, Maui, Lana’i, Moloka’i, Ni’ihau, and Kauai, gathering data on the relative abundance and spatial distribution of reef fish, invertebrates, coral and coral disease, algae, as well as on water temperature, salinity, and other physical characteristics of the coral reef environment. To date, more than 100 towed-diver surveys examining over 260 km of coastline have been completed; the fish and benthic teams have conducted more than 150 and 70 surveys, respectively, and about 30 oceanographic instruments have been serviced and re-deployed with hundreds of water samples collected for further chemical, biological, and microbial analyses. In addition, nearly two dozen Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) have been recovered and processed to assess the coral reef cryptic invertebrate biodiversity. Altogether, the teams have tallied more than 1000 SCUBA dives since the beginning of the expedition. 
Benthic diver Jacob Asher collecting coral demographics 
and disease data
As we wrap things up, during the next few days of operations, divers will be working around the island of Molokai. The Main Hawaiian Islands RAMP cruise is a challenging mission given the unpredictability of weather conditions around the islands (high winds and surf), as well as the extent of the marine ecosystems to be surveyed in such a short period of time. So far, activities have unfolded exceptionally well, and the data collected thus far are critical to the understanding of the long-term dynamics of the coral reef ecosystems in the Archipelago.
Nightly meeting meetings held to plan next day operations

What’s Shaping Kaua`i’s Coral Reefs?

by Courtney Couch 

We set sail last Tuesday for Kaua`i and Ni`ihau with several new scientists and crew members (including myself) and hopes for continued good weather. Kaua`i is the oldest of the Main Hawaiian Islands (approximately 5.1 million years old) and one of the most geologically complex islands. Since it is situated further west out of the shelter of the other islands, a large portion of Kaua`i’s coastline is battered by persistent strong trade winds and heavy swell. These factors together with the heavy rainfall have etched spectacular landscapes of precipitous valleys and ridges along the windward coasts. The leeward coast of Kaua`i is comprised of arid cliffs and gradual slopes of tan and red soil. Although the leeward coast is protected from the brunt of the trade winds, Kaua`i’s small size (1/7th the size of the Big Island) and its round shape, allows the winds to wrap around the island. We experienced these conditions first hand this week. Immediately following our departure from Pearl Harbor the trade winds started to pick up.  By the time we reached Kaua`i, the winds along the west coast were sustained at 15 knots with gusts to 30 knots, and this was on the leeward side of the island! Most days since then have been a challenge to find regions that are safe enough to launch the small boats, conduct our fieldwork, and retrieve the boats at the end of the day. 
Rough seas along West Kaua`i. Photo by: Courtney Couch
 As you may expect, these environmental conditions have dramatically shaped the coral reef ecosystems surrounding these islands. I spend all of my time researching coral health and disease along the leeward side of the Big Island, so the MHI RAMP cruise has been a unique opportunity to see the myriad of factors shaping coral reef structure on other islands. On the leeward reef slopes of the Big Island, you generally see dense Porites compressa beds as far as the eye can see.  The lower wave action due to deeper water along this coastline facilitates growth of this fragile species, which provides important habitat for many reef fish and invertebrates. Kaua`i’s leeward reefs are a different story. Many of the leeward study sites are comprised of flat algal covered pavement, bolder and small patches of consolidated reef. On the windward coast, reefs are primarily composed of flat pavement, rubble and boulders covered with low profile coral colonies. Overall, Kaua`i’s coral communities are sparser, comprised of smaller colonies and dominated by the more wave tolerant genera such as the pocilloporids and montiporids. So where has all the coral gone? 

Kaua’i’s older age plays a large role the overall reef structure. As Kaua`i moves further away from the hotspot that the Big Island currently resides over, it moves into higher latitudes less favorable for coral growth. The slow erosion of the land and reefs also generates sand and together with the high wind and wave action can act like sand paper and scour the substrate. Wave action is arguably one of the most significant factors shaping reef structure in Hawai`i.  High wave action prevents the development of fragile species and large colonies that can be easily broken off the substrate. Heavy rainfall along the windward coasts also transports large amounts of sediment onto the reefs reducing water clarity necessary for coral growth. Along the leeward coast of Kaua`i agricultural and residential development has facilitated sedimentation events during infrequent large rainfalls. These events blanket the reefs with fine red silt than can smother coral and reduced light. 
Coastal erosion along West Kaua`i. Photo by: Courtney Couch
While many of Kauai’s reefs no longer have the structural complexity and coral cover that the Big Island now has, it does have flora and fauna not commonly found on the Big Island. While Kaua`i lacks vast stretches of coral like we see on the Big Island, there is quite a diversity of algae (limu).  My dive buddy is a phycologist (limu expert) and frequently finds uncommon species, which is very exciting for him, and very educational for us.  From a coral biologist’s perspective South Kaua`i does have unique coral communities. We found one of the largest populations of Pocillopora eydouxi I have ever seen. This beautiful species can reach up to 100 cm in diameter and its intricate branches serve as a refuge for a range of fish and invertebrates.
Pocillopora eydouxi colonies provide important habitat for reef fauna. Photo by: Courtney Couch
At a site not too far away we also encountered an unusually high number of cryptic coral species such as Leptoseris incrustans, Leptoseris tubulifera, Leptoseris papyracea, and Cosinaraea wellsi.  As for fish, Kaua`i and especially Ni`ihau still have large curious predators such as uku and `omilu and kahala that come to see what you are all about on the dives.   However, none of the teams saw more than a couple of sharks here and there, which was surprising.  Where there is complexity (a lot of vertical relief of the substrate), there are nice aggregations of fish, and they typically are much larger up here.  
Antipathes sp. found along South Kaua`i. Photo by: Courtney Couch
Even with the less than ideal weather conditions, the scientists and crew aboard the Hi`ialakai have successfully completed our surveys around Kaua`i, Ni`ihau and West O`ahu.  With two days left in the second leg, we are ready for the last segment of the cruise, South Moloka`i.