By Adel Heenan and Ivor Williams
The fish team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently published a report summarizing its ecological monitoring activities in 2012–2013. This publication is the first in a new series of annual status reports from the surveys of coral reef fishes and benthic habitats conducted as part of the NOAA Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP). Its release presents a good opportunity to outline our team’s new communication strategy and to highlight recent efforts to institutionalize more effective monitoring of coral reef fishes in the U.S. Pacific.
To download the ecological monitoring report for 2012–2013, click here.
Broadly, the purpose of long-term ecological monitoring is to assess the condition of natural resources and detect changes through time. Pacific RAMP includes the following specific objectives:
- Collecting data and generating information on and documenting the status and trends of coral reef ecosystems, including primary components of the fish and benthic communities and key environmental drivers at U.S.-affiliated jurisdictions in the Pacific;
- Generating data suitable for assessment of changes in coral reef ecosystems in response to human, oceanographic, or environmental stressors; and
- Generating data to better evaluate the effectiveness of resource management strategies and policies.
Therefore, the value of data collected through Pacific RAMP depends on both how well it documents spatial patterns and changes across a large geographic area of the Pacific and, most important, how it informs management decisions to sustain coral reef resources. As part of NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan, the Pacific RAMP monitors to detect change in environmental conditions and ecosystem responses on island and regional scales because it is important for assessment of global stressors, such as ocean warming and acidification. The islands monitored span a wide range of potential human impact—from large population centers, such as Oahu, Maui, and Guam, to some of the most remote and pristine coral reefs in the world (e.g., Rose Atoll, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands). As such, CRED data are extremely valuable in the context of a conundrum that sits at the heart of fisheries management: what were coral reefs like in the absence of human influence? More specifically, to know how many fishes were there in the absence of fishing (a concept that is technically referred to as pristine fish abundance) is one of the essential reference points from which maximum sustainable harvest is calculated and, thus, fills a basic information need to support fisheries management decisions.
The large spatial scale at which CRED operates does make it more difficult to assess local or island-scale impacts. In general, many questions that require repeated visits throughout the course of a year or more intensive local sampling are best handled by the jurisdictions’ own monitoring programs. Nonetheless, with a few possible exceptions, the sampling area across which our standardized methods are applied (~40 U.S. Pacific islands and atolls) is globally unique and the data we collect provide an important context for status and trends observed at local levels. For the full potential of Pacific RAMP to be realized, however, CRED’s field surveys need to align with a number of equally important components that make long-term monitoring effective.
What makes ecological monitoring effective?
What constitutes effective monitoring is clearly context specific. It depends on, for example, the variables of interest (e.g., physical vs. biological, species-specific or community-level estimates) and the target quantitative objectives. Within the CRED fish team, we have implemented the following components to make our long-term monitoring efforts more relevant and reliable. To clarify our field sampling method and to establish an institutional memory, the fish team’s standard operation procedure is publicly available (click here to download). The standard operating procedure is currently being revised to include our statistical sampling design.
Before fieldwork begins, the CRED fish team conducts regular observer training focused on fish identification and on fish-size estimation. Once in the field, we continually monitor diver performance in terms of biomass and species richness estimates relative to other divers (Fig. 1). We have a standardized framework centered on transparent, reproducible reporting that has greatly increased our ability for timely and fastidious communication of our data. To make our data meaningful, however, we have to turn it into information. To do so, we have devised a tiered communication strategy.
Our new communication strategy for information products
The communication strategy of the CRED fish team has four levels, each of increasing complexity and detail. At the first level, immediately following each cruise leg, which typically cover a region or archipelago, we produce a monitoring brief that outlines our sampling effort and an overview summary of the new data (click herefor access to monitoring briefs). Second, we are committed to producing an annual status report within three months of the new calendar year. This status report presents the new site-level data collected (Fig. 2), sets the regions surveyed in the context of the wider Pacific areas that CRED surveys (Fig. 3), and reports on our diver performance results. The third and fourth tiers provide more in-depth analyses for specific projects. To illustrate, a technical report came from the additional surveys performed around Guam in 2011, surveys that allowed for assessment of the efficacy of marine protected areas (click hereto download NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-33).
We welcome comments on how to improve the utility of our data and information products. Comments or suggestions on any of the above content can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line of “For the Attention of the CRED Fish Team Lead.”
Again, to access the 112-page annual status report for 2012–2013, click here. Here’s the full reference for this report:
Heenan A, Ayotte P, Gray A, Lino K, McCoy K, Zamzow J, Williams I. 2014.Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program. Data Report: Ecological monitoring 2012–2013—reef fishes and benthic habitats of the main Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, and Pacific Remote Island Areas. Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, PIFSC Data Report, DR-14-003, 112 p.