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, April 19, 2011

Beyond Sarigan....

by Annette DesRochers

As Edmund promised, our expedition through the Northern Mariana Islands has indeed been a mystical journey. Setting sail from Sarigan, we have stopped at and passed by many a volcanic peak along the way. From dawn till dusk, the views from topside have been nothing short of spectacular. While this is true for many of the places where our research takes us, it seems especially true in this part of the world.

Sunset over the two stratovolcanoes of Pagan. NOAA photo by Jake Asher.
Our first stop after Sarigan was the island of Pagan, one of the larger islands in the Northern Marianas. Not only is the shape of the island unique compared to the singular cone-shape of the other islands in the northern part of chain, but it is also one of the most geologically active. Just this past year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research camp left the island due to increased volcanic activity. The largest eruption in recent history was in 1981—the few remaining residents on the island had to be evacuated—though it has erupted several times since then with one relatively minor event in late 2006 just months before CRED’s 2007 research cruise to the region.
The view from the Hi’ialakai of Mount Pagan. NOAA photo by Annette DesRochers.
Despite the obvious beauty of the island, I for one have been partly disappointed since we arrived. Everyone that has been to this region talks about seeing Mount Pagan, the northern volcano on the island, steaming in the distance. As you see in the picture above, not a speck of smoke to be seen; nothing but blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I guess it could be worse.
Early morning launch near the northeast side of Pagan where large rock formations jut out from the sea. NOAA photo by Jake Asher.
It's business as usual as the dive teams set out for a day of operations. That being said, I don’t think any of the divers, even those who are now on their fifth research cruise to the region, ever tire of the sites above or below the sea surface. One of the REA fish divers was sharing her photos with me from her surveys here at Pagan, and even she can’t get enough of some of the species they find here such as the variations of anemonefish in the pictures below.
Clark's anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii). NOAA photo by Paula Ayotte.

Pink anemonefish (Amphiprion perideraion). NOAA photo by Paula Ayotte.
And the oceanography team, normally busy underwater deploying and recovering various oceanographic instruments, took time out to enjoy some of the spectacular corals that are found here.
A mushroom coral (Fungia sp.). NOAA photo by Oceanography team.
Previous RAMP surveys have noted a number of underwater stressors to the coral reef habitats here at Pagan, from a large increase in cyanobacteria cover (i.e., blue-green algae) seen island-wide in 2009, to persistent Acanthaster plancii (crown-of-thorns) populations. Thankfully, our recent surveys revealed that neither appear to be currently causing stress to the benthic environment here.
Peering through the rock formations, you can see a glimpse of the volcano in the background. NOAA photo by Paula Ayotte.
At the end of a long day, the divers’ route back to the ship takes them around the north side of the island past the amazing rock formations, but their work is not yet done. It takes several players to safely deliver the small boats back into their cradles on the Hi’ialakai. We're well into the second leg of this cruise, and yet, no matter how tired or routine it might seem, safety always comes first.
Chief Scientist Jake Asher snaps his camera just in time to show AB Carmen Greto throwing the lines to one of the divers on HI-2. NOAA photo by Jake Asher.
After three days of surveys here at Pagan Island, it's time to move on to our next destination. Next stop on our journey, Asuncion Island.

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