From the Village to the Pacific, coordinating coral reef assessments in Tutuila, American Samoa

by Kelvin Gorospe and Adel Heenan

Kelvin Gorospe sets transects for a fish survey.

Following the American Samoa portion of the recent Reef Fish Survey cruise, Adel and I disembarked NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette to remain in Pago Pago, American Samoa. From May 9 to 13, we met with partners from the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG), Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, and National Park Service. During this time, we facilitated a workshop to initiate steps to achieve cross-scale coordination between our programs and cross-scale integration of our datasets. By bringing multiple agencies and institutions together, all of whom are engaged in coral reef ecosystem monitoring in Tutuila, American Samoa, we used our collective experience (more than 120 years!) in coral reef monitoring to think about cross-scale ecosystem monitoring. How can we combine our resources to complement each other’s monitoring programs? Can we integrate datasets collected at different scales, and if not, are there steps that we can take to facilitate this integration down the road?


Several participants of the data integration workshop held in Pago-Pago, American Samoa.

To begin taking steps in the right direction, we had to figure out how to compare different datasets and understand the monitoring objectives of different agencies. Effective monitoring objectives determine the scope of inference for the data collected and more often than not, monitoring programs are optimized to report at a specific spatial scale. For example, data collected by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) for the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP) are primarily designed to report on key metrics of ecosystem condition at an island or sub-island scale for each of the U.S.-affiliated islands and atolls in the Pacific. In contrast, data collected by various monitoring agencies operating in Tutuila are designed to report metrics at the village/bay or site-specific scale. Coordinating efforts across scales is an important component of ecosystem-based management that allows for more effective comparisons between efforts. For example, how does the status of reef fish populations in a particular marine protected area compare to reef fish populations for the rest of the island, or islands in an archipelago? Such coordination and comparisons allow for inference at an ecosystem-relevant scale. Blending datasets and coordinating monitoring programs is, however, easier said than done.

One barrier to seamless integration that was identified at the workshop, was the existence of multiple survey methods. When identical methods are used to collect data for different scales, the data can be blended and compared on these different scales. Last year, the National Marine Sanctuaries of American Samoa partnered with CREP to collect baseline data for Aunu‘u and Fagatele Bay. Typically CREP collects island-scale data for the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP). However, since the method used to collect both the Pacific RAMP and National Marine Sanctuaries datasets were identical, the Sanctuaries’ baseline data could be easily compared to the island-scale data collected for NCRMP. For many of the monitoring programs operating in Tutuila, however, blending datasets will not be so easy. For example, many of them use belt-transects to conduct fish surveys, while CREP uses a stationary point count method. While both acquire the same type of information, the use of different methods makes blending the data a bit challenging.


Workshop participant, Alice Lawrence from the Coral Reef Advisory Group, presenting a SWOT evaluation of the American Samoa Coral Reef Monitoring Program’s dataset.

Over several days, partners presented the details (e.g., sampling design, quantitative objectives, etc.) of their individual datasets, reviewed examples and strategies for how datasets can be integrated, and conducted SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) evaluations of their monitoring programs. Our purpose was to understand the intricacies of each other’s datasets before considering how we could potentially integrate.

The workshop culminated in a structured discussion on how to integrate community, jurisdictional, and federal coral reef ecosystem monitoring datasets. Participants were asked to detail concrete, short, and long-term steps that can be taken to overcome existing barriers to integrating our datasets. Recommendations ranged from conducting a calibration study between several of our datasets to facilitate the comparison of our different survey methods to publishing an information brief that co-reports multiple datasets for a single village’s marine resources. These recommendations fell into four broad categories that encapsulate the different components of a monitoring program – (1) communication strategy, (2) data integrity, (3) data relevance, and (4) non-data resources (e.g., creating a full-time interagency monitoring team in Tutuila) – and will be detailed in a forthcoming workshop report.

We are now working on an information brief, that will provide both an outreach tool and serve as a pilot study for how our multiple datasets could be co-reported. The information brief will report on biological and socio-economic indicators collected across multiple efforts for a single village. Our plan is to produce this informational product for a village where multiple datasets already exist. If successful, we hope to roll out similar products for other villages.


A map of several different monitoring datasets collected around Tutuila, American Samoa

Funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, the workshop and its outcomes are an important link between jurisdictional scientists in American Samoa focused on local monitoring efforts and PIFSC scientists focused on Pacific-wide and national efforts. Based on the next steps and recommendations identified at the workshop, the benefits to coordinating across multiple scales are clear: not only will integration allow us to understand more about the ecosystems in which we operate, but will also allow us to collectively achieve more.

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