by Paula Ayotte
On April 4, 2016, I traveled to American Samoa to train partner scientists on methods used to conduct fish and benthic surveys, ultimately preparing them to join the Reef Fish Survey cruise (SE-16-02) aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. The NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) is leading this research cruise, but it is a multi-agency partnership—bringing together participants from the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR), the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Monitoring data collected by the CREP fish team are used to assess the status and trends of coral reef fish populations. This requires high standardized data collection methods. In order to collect high quality data for the CREP fish team, divers must undergo rigorous training in the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) fish stationary point count (SPC) survey method. The purpose of the training is for survey divers to develop the required skills in fish identification, fish size estimation, the survey method protocol and visually estimating benthic cover (coral, algae, crustose coralline algae, and sand), urchin counts, and habitat complexity.
I launched our comprehensive new online training package for the first time at the recent training course, hosted by the DMWR, with broader support from the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG) appointed by the Governor. The participation of DWMR partners also requires them to acquire reciprocity to dive with NOAA divers. NOAA CREP and DWMR fulfilled this requirement ahead of the training course so that our respective monitoring programs can work more collaboratively in future.
Participants in this week-long training included: Alice Lawrence, the Coral Reef Monitoring Fish Ecologist for the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG-DMWR); Motusaga Vaeoso, a coral reef monitoring technician and marine debris project coordinator (CRAG-DMWR); and Brittney Honisch, a research technician at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine. Several other scientists from DMWR as well as the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency attended the first introductory day of classroom training.
After a full day of classroom training where scientists reviewed the methods, practiced counting and sizing fish, took a fish identification test, and ran a practice survey transect, they were ready to get in the water. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and the scientists spent the next three days diving off the DMWR boat in the waters around Tutuila. By the third day of diving the new survey divers felt comfortable and confident with the survey method and also practiced in-water emergency dive rescue skills.
On the final day, the divers returned to the classroom to practice entering their data into the database, review photos they had taken during the dives, and take one last fish identification test… which they all passed with flying colors! All three of these trainees will now join the CREP fish team on the Oscar Elton Sette to collect data for the NMFS reef fish survey cruise.
The CREP fish rapid ecological assessment training materials used during the training are now available online at: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred/survey_methods/fish_surveys/rapid_ecological_assessment_of_fish-survey_method_training.php.