Five million fish and counting!

By Kelvin Gorospe

After 15 years of surveying coral reef fishes across the Pacific, the Fish Team at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) has amassed one of the world’s largest datasets of reef fishes. This dataset has been instrumental in contributing to a better understanding of the health of coral reef ecosystems. The CRED team, currently conducting surveys in the Line Islands (a series of remote atolls and low islands in the central Pacific), recently surpassed a major benchmark: five million fish sized and counted!

A school of anthias (Pseudanthias bartlettorum) at Jarvis Island. Photo by Kelvin Gorospe

A school of anthias (Pseudanthias bartlettorum) at Jarvis Island. Photo by Kelvin Gorospe

It seems appropriate that the five millionth fish was a Pseudanthias bartelttorum, a tiny anthias, commonly numbering in the thousands within our surveys, and thus, the most numerically abundant fish we encounter. Even more appropriate is that the benchmark was reached at Jarvis Island, one of the Line Islands, and one of the most fish-abundant islands surveyed by CRED in the entire U.S. Pacific Islands region.

<em>Pseudanthias bartlettorum</em>. Photo by Kevin Lino

Pseudanthias bartlettorum. Photo by Kevin Lino

In commemoration of this benchmark, here is a conversation between the lucky anthias (PSBA) that so honorably received the distinction of being the five millionth fish and the fish team member, Kaylyn McCoy (KM), who counted it.

PSBA: When I first learned that I was the five millionth fish to be counted by the legendary CRED Fish Team, I had no idea they were anywhere close to surveying that many fishes. No offense, but who cares how many of us anthiases are living here on the reef? Is that seriously your job? Get a life.

KM: Well, Ms. Anthias… You are a “Ms.” right? I sized you as a 4cm Pseudanthias bartlettorum, so you’re probably a female, and I also saw that you’re part of a giant harem of anthiases, with just a few male anthiases. Don’t give me snarkiness just because your options are thin.

PSBA: Ok ok, sorry. But seriously, why count anthiases like me?

KM: Our job isn’t to just count anthiases. Our job is to monitor whole assemblages of reef fishes across the U.S. Pacific Islands, everything from the gray reef sharks that patrol around Jarvis Island to tiny anthiases like you. You’re all part of the reef fish community, which itself is part of the larger reef ecosystem that we monitor.

PSBA: Ok, but what is the point of surveying fish communities? What does that tell us?

KM: We are part of the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program, so we are interested in monitoring long-term trends. By coming here to Jarvis Island every three years, we hope to get a better sense of how reef fish communities like yours are changing. It’s too soon to give you a definitive answer on fish community trends through time but we’re working on that…

PSBA: Wait! I knew I’ve seen you guys before! You were here three years ago and you’re pretty much the only people that we ever see around here. Well, I guess your job is pretty cool. It lets you dive in some of the most remote coral reefs in the world. But why do you care so much about diving where there are no other people?

KM: While we’re still working on building up our time series data, the immense spatial extent of our dataset also allows us to study how coral reefs around the Pacific vary across both human and environmental gradients. In other words, the reefs we study span the whole range of human impacts (from virtually no human impacts to reefs facing intense human pressures, like fishing and runoff caused by land-use and development) and changing environmental conditions (e.g., different temperatures, nutrients, carbonate chemistry, and wave energy). We study reefs in just about every condition imaginable, allowing us to tease apart the effects of environmental and human influences on reefs. Thanks to these data we now have a better understanding of the level of reef fish stocks we can expect around pristine reefs (recent paper by Fish Team published in PLOS ONE).

PSBA: So little anthiases like me really are important to you guys?

KM: Of course! We are a division of NOAA that specifically monitors coral reef ecosystems and you are part of the ecosystem. We not only monitor the fish populations, but the benthic communities, cryptic biodiversity, and oceanographic conditions around all of the reefs we study. All of this information is provided to fisheries management agencies in Hawai‘i, American Samoa, Guam, and the Mariana Islands, as well as our management partners at the Pacific Islands Regional Office, the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CRED monitoring publications). And the more data we collect, the better we will be able to report on how reefs are responding to local threats of human fishing as well as to global threats like ocean acidification and warming (NOAA Ocean Acidification Program), and more importantly, how management can help mitigate these impacts.

PSBA: Well, I’m glad the honor of the five millionth fish didn’t go to one of those big charismatic fish like a shark or a manta, or worse, some little clown fish, those guys are always stealing the limelight. And at least you didn’t mistake me for a Luzonichthys whitleyi or a Lepidozygus tapeinosoma. Those unoriginal posers are always mimicking us in our aggregations. Thanks Kaylyn and CRED for watching out for us and hope to see you in the water next time around!

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