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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big Fish at Wake

by Paula Ayotte
photos by Kara Osada

As a fish survey diver for the past six years, I’ve counted and sized lots of big fish throughout the Pacific, from sharks to jacks, rays, eels, and barracuda. All of these species are seen at Wake, but what makes this atoll unique is that there are some other big players from families that we don’t normally see in larger sizes – parrotfish and wrasses. Though parrotfish and wrasses can get relatively big, we’re more accustomed to seeing these types of fish in sizes that you could fit inside a breadbox; anywhere from 2 cm juveniles to 60 cm adults. Here, though, the Bumphead parrotfish (BOMU we call them, the code for Bolbometopon muricatum) and the Humphead wrasses (CHUD, for Cheilinus undulatus) rule the reef, reaching sizes of 130 cm to 200 cm, respectively. Both of these fish are listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and are rare in most parts of the world. We see them much more frequently at Wake than at the other islands or atolls we survey. During this trip we saw at least one or two CHUDs on almost every dive, and at a few sites saw BOMUs in schools of up to 20 individuals; pretty impressive!

Big Bumpheads

In contrast, the grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) we saw here at Wake seem to be on the smaller size, anywhere from 40 cm to 100 cm. There were some larger individuals (up to 150 cm), but they seemed a bit more aloof and stayed in the distance, while the smaller guys were much more curious and would swim in quite close,  maybe for a better look. And though they may have been smaller, it’s still pretty exciting when you’ve got more than a dozen suddenly appearing and surrounding you. It’s definitely something we don’t experience around more densely populated areas such as Oahu or Guam.

A school of a dozen grey reef sharks hovers over the reef.

It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to travel to these remote places and participate in work that will hopefully help to maintain healthy populations of these amazing creatures.

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