A Fish That Shapes The Reef

By Andrew E. Gray

Every three years, scientists from NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) visit Wake Atoll to survey corals, assess the fish populations, and collect oceanographic data for a long-term monitoring effort—the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP). Wake Atoll has clear water, healthy coral reefs, and is managed and conserved as part of the expansive U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It has a healthy reef fish community with plentiful sharks, jacks, and groupers. As a fish research diver, it’s my kind of paradise. Sitting in the middle of the subtropical North Pacific Ocean, 1,500 miles east of Guam and about 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu, it may be the most remote place I’ve ever been. But for me, and a few other scientists lucky enough to visit the island, there is one thing that makes Wake a special place: Bolbometopon muricatm, the Bumphead parrotfish.

Bumphead parrotfish

Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatm) at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Bumphead parrotfish are an incredible and unique reef fish, differing from other parrotfish by their large size, appearance, diet, and by their ecological impact on coral reef ecosystems. There are a number of other parrotfish that sport a bump on their head, and these may be mistaken for a Bumphead parrotfish—that is until you actually see one. Bumpheads have a presence like no other fish on the reef and when they are around I can’t take my eyes off of them. The first thing I notice is their sheer size: growing to 4.2 feet long and up to a 100 pounds (that’s 130 cm and 46 kg for you scientists). Bumpheads are the world’s largest parrotfish and among the largest of all reef fish. When I get a little closer, I can’t help but focus on their incredible beaks. On coral reefs, all parrotfish species are tasked with the important job of keeping algae from overgrowing reef-building corals.

Corals chomped

Bumphead parrotfish chomp corals and help maintain the health and diversity of the reef ecosystem, Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Parrotfish bite and scrape algae off of rocks and dead corals with their parrot-like beaks; grind the inedible calcium carbonate (reef material made mostly of coral skeletons) which is excreted as sand back onto the reef. Larger parrotfish species can take small chunks out of the reef, removing algae and the occasional piece of coral. Bumphead parrotfish are unique in that they are continuously crunching large bites out of the reef, about half of it from live coral. In fact, that’s what they do most of the day. Bite the reef. Excrete sand. Repeat. Over the course of a year a single fish can remove over 5 tons of calcium carbonate from the reef! But by selectively eating fast growing coral species over slower growing species, they help maintain a more diverse coral reef ecosystem. Also, by munching down tons of dead corals every year each fish makes room for young corals to settle, grow and build up the reef. This means breaking down “dead reef” into sand rather than it breaking off in a storm and damaging other parts of the reef. And since Bumpheads often travel in groups, sometimes numbering into hundreds and traveling multiple kilometers in a day, this species can have quite an impact on the reef ecosystem. Bumphead parrotfish literally shape the reef.

Bumphead

Large bump on the head of a Bumphead parrotfish (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Then, of course, there is the fish’s namesake, its bump. All Bumphead parrotfish sport a large protrusion on their forehead which is similar in function to a pair of horns on a bighorn sheep. The largest males have the biggest bumps and will occasionally use them as battering rams around spawning time, smashing headfirst into rivals in an attempt to show their dominance and retain territorial and breeding rights. This incredible behavior was observed by CREP scientists in 2009 and first documented and filmed by researchers at Wake in 2011. During these mating events, the parrotfish gather or aggregate around a spawning site and can number into the hundreds, an uncommon site anywhere in the world and one that I hope to see sometime at Wake.

Historically, Bumphead parrotfish were plentiful throughout much of the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea. In recent decades, fishing led to sharp declines in abundance and they are now only common in protected or very remote areas. Bumpheads have a few traits that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, which has led to local disappearances in many parts of their range. Bumphead parrotfish can live to be 40 years old; they do not reach sexual maturity until 5-8 years old and likely have low natural mortality as adults so there is not high natural turnover in the population. However, most detrimental to their survival in a human-dominated world is their aggregating behavior and preference for shallow water. Groups of Bumpheads could be easily netted, as they feed during the day, and at night sleeping parrotfish are easy targets for spear fishermen. With the introduction of scuba gear in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a steep decline in Bumphead abundances as entire schools could be removed in a single night while they slept. Juvenile Bumpheads are also hard to find or study throughout much of their range and raises concerns that some adult populations are too far from juvenile habitats. This distance prevents new youngsters from entering the population to replace adults that have been caught. In areas where juveniles can be commonly found, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, they are associated with mangrove, rubble, and sheltered lagoon habitats. And this is why Wake Atoll may be such a hotbed of Bumpheads.

Reef at Wake Atoll

Coral reef at Wake Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/James Morioka)

In addition to having a sizable healthy coral reef around the island, Wake Atoll has an expansive, sheltered lagoon. This may be the perfect habitat for the juvenile parrotfish and allows Wake to have a healthy, self-supplying population of Bumpheads. And since Wake is protected from fishing, it may be as close to a pristine home as the Bumphead parrotfish are going to encounter in today’s world. Wake actually has the highest concentration of Bumphead parrotfish in U.S. waters and possibly the world (although certain areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia also have very healthy adult populations). During my time at Wake Atoll, I had a number of chances to see them, from loose groups of just a few individuals, to a school of thirteen.

School too

School of Bumphead parrotfish at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

As I write this, the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai heads west to Guam, our next survey site where I’ll be spending 8 days surveying reef fish. Bumpheads were once thought to be extinct around Guam due to overfishing, but there have been a few sightings by CREP and partners in the past few years, of both adults and juveniles. So while my expectations of encountering these giant bulbous-headed, coral-chomping fish are low, I sure hope I do, given how important they are to the natural function of coral reef ecosystems.

References
  1. Bellwood, D., & Choat, J. (2011). Dangerous demographics: the lack of juvenile humphead parrotfishes Bolbometopon muricatum on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs, 30(2), 549-554.
  2. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Choat, J. H. (2003). Limited functional redundancy in high diversity systems: resilience and ecosystem function on coral reefs. Ecology Letters, 6(4), 281-285.
  3. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Hughes, T. P. (2011). Human activity selectively impacts the ecosystem roles of parrotfishes on coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1906
  4. Donaldson, T. J., & Dulvy, N. K. (2004). Threatened fishes of the world: Bolbometopon muricatum (Valenciennes 1840)(Scaridae). Environmental Biology of Fishes, 70(4), 373-373.
  5. Green, A. L., & Bellwood, D. R. (2009). Monitoring functional groups of herbivorous reef fishes as indicators of coral reef resilience: a practical guide for coral reef managers in the Asia Pacific Region: IUCN.
  6. Kobayashi, D., Friedlander, A., Grimes, C., Nichols, R., & Zgliczynski, B. (2011). Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) status review. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-26. NOAA.
  7. Muñoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Laughlin, J. L., & Teer, B. Z. (2012). Extraordinary Aggressive Behavior from the Giant Coral Reef Fish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a Remote Marine Reserve. PLoS One, 7(6), e38120. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038120
  8. Munoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Teer, B. Z., & Laughlin, J. L. (2014). Spawning aggregation behavior and reproductive ecology of the giant bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a remote marine reserve. PeerJ, 2, e681.
  9. Sundberg, M., Kobayashi, D., Kahng, S., Karl, S., & Zamzow, J. (2015). The Search for Juvenile Bumphead Parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Lagoon at Wake Island.

Bubbles or not, here we come!

By Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray pre-breathes to prepare his rebreather for five minutes prior to entering the water for a Stationary Point Count fish survey dive.

Andrew Gray pre-breathes to prepare his rebreather for five minutes prior to entering the water for a Stationary Point Count (SPC) fish survey dive.

Something was different on the recent PIFSC Main Hawaiian Islands Reef Fish Survey cruise led by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED). In addition to the usual scuba surveys conducted by scientists, the small boats also deployed scientific divers that resembled a species of bionic frogmen. Instead of scuba, these divers used closed circuit rebreathers (CCR), and while it may look like they were a bit overdressed for the occasion, there was a good reason for it.

When conventional open circuit scuba divers take a breath of air from the tanks on their backs, they exhale it into the surrounding water and create a burst of bubbles containing CO2, residual oxygen not metabolized by the body, and nitrogen, an inert gas. Closed circuit rebreathers (or just rebreathers) are a specialized type of dive equipment that removes the CO2 and re-uses the exhaled oxygen. The diver breathes from a “loop” of gas where CO2 is removed from the exhaled gas by a chemical filter called a “scrubber.” Three oxygen sensors analyze the gas and a computer-controlled solenoid adds additional oxygen to replenish oxygen metabolized by the diver or add more oxygen when specified by the diver. Rebreathers include two small tanks of gas, one of pure oxygen and a second of a gas to dilute the oxygen called the diluent, usually air for depths less than 130 feet.

Closed circuit rebreather (CCR) diver Ray Boland poses with open circuit diver Kristin Golman despite her loud and annoying exhales.

Closed circuit rebreather (CCR) diver Ray Boland poses with open circuit diver Kristin Golman despite her loud and annoying exhales.

This equipment has a number of benefits over conventional scuba. The efficient use (and re-use) of gas allows divers to stay underwater much longer without having to bring an excessive number of tanks. Since the rebreather is mixing an ideal nitrox gas mix for whatever depth the diver is at, rebreather divers can have much longer no-decompression dive times when compared with conventional scuba divers at the same depth. Also, because no air is released into surrounding water, there are no bubbles or noisy exhalations—and that is exactly why we are using them.

It’s understood that visual fish surveys may be prone to certain biases. One of which is that fish behavior may be altered by the presence of a diver in the water. Some fish species may be attracted to the diver, others afraid. In areas where spearfishing is common, targeted fishes likely react to divers very differently than in areas where fishing does not occur. The CRED fish team specializes in conducting Stationary Point Count (SPC) visual fish surveys, which have always been conducted on open circuit scuba. But what effect do the noisy, conspicuous bubbles produced by scientific divers using scuba have on our fish counts and biomass estimates? By using closed circuit rebreathers we can replace the blaring bubble machines with silent divers.

Diving on closed circuit rebreather, Kosta Stamoulis encounters a manta ray (Manta birostris) while conducting a Stationary Point Count visual fish surveys

Diving on closed circuit rebreather, Kosta Stamoulis encounters a manta ray (Manta birostris) during a SPC visual fish survey.

So that’s where the “bionic frogmen” come in. On the recently completed research cruise, CRED and partners conducted stationary point count visual fish surveys throughout the main Hawaiian Islands using both open circuit scuba and closed circuit rebreathers to compare results. Would we record more fish when using the less obtrusive rebreathers? Would we see more of the fish species targeted by fisheries when using rebreathers and the same amount of other smaller non-fished species like butterflyfish and damselfish? Surely we’d see the same number of hawkfish, those small wary fish perched on top of coral heads. Right? Well, we are only about halfway through our comparison study so it’s too early to say just yet, but preliminary results suggest that we are seeing some differences when using rebreathers and not always what we expected. We hope to work up the results in a scientific paper later this year.

Ray Boland meticulously preps his Inspiration rebreather prior to conducting an SPC survey.

Ray Boland meticulously preps his Inspiration rebreather prior to conducting an SPC survey.

If open circuit diving is so obtrusive, why don’t all scientific divers switch to using rebreathers? Because there are some disadvantages to diving with rebreathers which can make life difficult when conducting hundreds or thousands of surveys each year. For one, rebreathers are heavy and bulky, even for me, a 190-pound 6’2” guy. After coercing your body into the 65-pound rebreather and clipping on another 15-pound bailout tank, regular scuba gear feels like floating on a fistful of helium balloons. You also have to deal with much longer setup and breakdown times, more pre-dive preparation and buddy checks, and significantly more expensive gear and consumables. Rather than have everyone switch to rebreather, we are more interested in understanding any differences in fish biomass between open circuit scuba surveys and rebreather surveys. For now, rebreathers are another interesting tool we can use to help monitor and assess reef fish populations around the Hawaiian Islands and U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean.

The final count: summary of mission to assess reef fish assemblages, build capacity in Timor-Leste

By Kevin Lino
Among shoals of damselfishes, Andrew Gray of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on June 16 reels in a transect line at the end of a reef fish survey in Oecusse, Timor-Leste. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Among shoals of damselfishes, Andrew Gray of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on June 16 reels in a transect line at the end of a reef fish survey in Oecusse, Timor-Leste. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Researchers from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently completed a successful mission to assess coral reef fish assemblages in nearshore (<18 m), coastal waters off the northern coastlines of Timor-Leste—in conjunction with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) of the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID). From June 4 to 27, they completed 311 dives and collected survey data at 150 sites in the districts of Dili, Manatuto, Baucau, Bobonaro, Lautem, Liquiça, and Oecusse and at Atauro Island.

A vast school of golden sweeper (Parapriacanthus ransonneti) aggregates near a coral ledge off the northern coast of Timor-Leste on June 11. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

A vast school of golden sweeper (Parapriacanthus ransonneti) aggregates near a coral ledge off the northern coast of Timor-Leste on June 11. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Also highly successful were secondary projects to (1) record acoustic data on seafloor depths for use with WorldView-2 satellite-derived data to create accurate shallow-water bathymetry for the area and (2) collect water samples to complement existing ocean acidification projects in the region. The team completed 14 water sampling arrays for carbonate chemistry analysis: 35 samples for dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) concentration and 28 samples for salinity.

This mission involved immense data gathering, but its greatest achievements were the activities in which CRED researchers shared their knowledge and expertise with local partners and agencies to increase their technical capacity in monitoring of the marine environment to which they are so closely connected. Looking back at our accomplishments now, about a month after our return, these experiences stand out as not only some of the most memorable but also the most rewarding for us.

The team worked from chartered platforms—the Sundancer NT catamaran and its tender boat during the live-aboard portion of our mission and from the Lancet during shore-based operations. CRED divers used the stationary-point-count method to collect underwater visual census information on the reef fish populations and benthic composition at each of the 150 survey sites. The locations of survey sites were indiscriminately selected with a stratified random sampling design.

Sundancer NT crew member Ian Brown collects bathymetric data in transit aboard the tender boat to another survey site on June 16. NOAA photo by Andrew Gray

Sundancer NT crew member Ian Brown collects bathymetric data aboard the tender boat in transit to another survey site on June 16. NOAA photo by Andrew Gray

Despite thorough mission planning and some great local information used in determining potential survey locations, the final selection of exact sites during this mission was affected by logistics, weather, and many other conditions. In several areas, finding the targeted habitat of hard-bottom reefs proved to be a difficult and time-consuming process. Evidently, the acoustic mapping data collected during this trip was in great need and will begin to alleviate this lack of information on seafloor depths. The variety of habitats encountered during this mission was often surprising and quite unpredictable. We learned that The Dry (aka dry season) does not mean that there will be no rain but rather that it will be less rainy than it is during monsoon season—a bit of knowledge that will be helpful for future research in this region. Because of the rain we encountered during this mission, we limited the number of survey areas associated with river basins, where runoff and particulates in the water column resulted in visibility that was not optimal for our surveys.

Figure 1. Total fish biomass (g m-2) by district or area from stationary-point-count surveys conducted at 150 sites off the northern coast of Timor-Leste in June 2013.

Figure 1. Total fish biomass (g m-2) by district or area from stationary-point-count surveys conducted at 150 sites off the northern coast of Timor-Leste in June 2013.

Kaylyn McCoy, who served as our database manager during this mission, rapidly produced a summary of initial survey results, including many figures to help illustrate them, and shared these results with partners and local agencies before departing the country (see Fig. 1). These preliminary results closely reflect the general impressions of CRED divers of the various habitats surveyed and provide a respectable representation of the northern coastline. With more than 500 fish species identified during our surveys, as expected, biodiversity and complexity were much higher than the levels observed in other regions in the Pacific that have been surveyed by CRED. Although we did not encounter as many large-bodied fishes as we anticipated, the abundance and diversity of fishes were adequate compensation (see Fig. 2). Also promising was an observation that several remote areas, which have been recognized by local agencies as potential locations to establish some form of protection in the future, appeared to hold levels of fish biomass that were higher than the levels we observed in other areas off Timor-Leste. Hopefully, further analysis will produce more detailed information that can aid local agencies in making their management decisions.

Figure 2. Total fish biomass (g m-2) by district or area and size class from stationary-point-count surveys conducted at 150 sites off the northern coast of Timor-Leste in June 2013. Error bars indicate ±1 standard error of the mean.

Figure 2. Total fish biomass (g m-2) by district or area and size class from stationary-point-count surveys conducted at 150 sites off the northern coast of Timor-Leste in June 2013. Error bars indicate ±1 standard error of the mean.

It was clearly a collaborative effort to educate, inform, and collect data by all parties involved. Not only did we pass on the data we collected and the methods we used to collect them, but also our partners returned much more in local knowledge, information, and way of life. We would like to especially thank CTSP and Rui Da Silva Pinto for his immeasurable service in logistics and communications and his overall constructive attitude. Robert Crean and the team at Compass Charters were fantastic to work with and very accommodating, especially in arranging our use of the Sundancer NT, with its captain, Peter Herden, and highly skilled crew members Ian Brown and Kym Hamilton. There are too many individuals to thank here, but our team appreciates everyone involved in this mission, both in Timor-Leste and within NOAA, who made everything possible. Obrigado!

A blue-spotted fantail ray (Taeniura lymma) on June 25 rests on the seafloor while a tailspot squirrelfish (Sargocentron caudimaculatum) swims overhead at a coral reef off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

A blue-spotted fantail ray (Taeniura lymma) rests on the seafloor while a tailspot squirrelfish (Sargocentron caudimaculatum) swims overhead on June 25 at a coral reef off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Update from Timor-Leste: scientists complete live-aboard mission to survey reef fishes and benthos, assess ocean acidification

By Andrew Gray

Scientists from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem (CRED) recently finished a 2-week live-aboard expedition to survey reef fish and benthic communities, collect water samples, and record data on seafloor depths along the northern coast of Timor-Leste. This mission was part of a larger operation that also included similar monitoring work based from land, capacity-building activities, and an outreach effort. Our last blog post from Timor-Leste left off with our boarding of the catamaran Sundancer NT on June 13 to start the live-aboard mission.

Brett Schumacher of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division surfaces behind the live-aboard vessel Sundancer NT on June 19 after conducting a survey of reef fishes and taking photos of benthic communities during a 2-week live-aboard mission off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

Brett Schumacher of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division surfaces behind the live-aboard vessel Sundancer NT on June 19 after conducting a survey of reef fishes and taking photos of benthic communities during a 2-week live-aboard mission off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

We arrived at the Sundancer NT in Dili Harbor before lunch on June 13 after traveling in a pair of pickup trucks for 1.5 hours on narrow, winding roads from Caimeo Beach in Liquiçá, where we had ended our land-based survey work. Why switch to a boat-based mission? The beauty of a live-aboard situation is that it eliminates time spent on transfers between your base on land and survey sites. During our live-aboard mission, long distances between survey sites were covered at night as everyone slept and we arrived at our survey sites at first light. With the catamaran as our base, remote locations that could have been difficult or impossible to survey during a land-based setup—locations such as Oecussi, an enclave of Timor-Leste within Indonesia, and the dramatic, cliff-flanked jungle coast of the Lautem district—were as easy to access as Dili Harbor.

The first day of live-aboard operations began with a safety drill to assess our ability to rescue divers in distress. Max Sudnovsky of CRED and I put on our dive gear, and Sudnovsky feigned an unconscious diver ~90 m off the stern of the Sundancer NT. True to their training, the team had us both onboard and Sudnovsky stabilized and breathing oxygen within 5 min of starting the drill. We made a few tweaks to our setup—adding a pair of throw lines and staging the oxygen in the pilot house—to decrease our response time. With the drill done, we began our first operational dive of the mission, starting with collection of a water sample for analysis of dissolved inorganic carbon at one of the permanent monitoring sites set up in October by researchers during a previous CRED mission.

For the rest of that day and over the next 12 days, we leapfrogged down the coast to complete surveys with 2 dive teams—1 on the Sundancer NT and 1 on a tender boat—at sites in Oecussi, off Atuaro Island, and along the length of the northern coast of Timor-Leste from Bobonaro to the eastern tip of Jaco Island in the Lautem district. We completed our assessment activities at as many as 10 sites per day.

Kaylyn McCoy of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, on the first day of the live-aboard mission on June 13, gives the OK signal before she hops off a swim step of the Sundancer NT and into the ocean to conduct a stationary-point-count survey of reef fishes off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

Kaylyn McCoy of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division gives the OK signal before she hops off the Sundancer NT and into the ocean on June 13 to conduct a stationary-point-count survey of reef fishes off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

Aboard the tender boat piloted by Ian Brown, Brett Schumacher and Kaylyn McCoy of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division return to the Sundancer NT after completing surveys of reef fish and benthic communities and recording depth soundings on June 16 off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

Aboard the tender boat piloted by Ian Brown, Brett Schumacher and Kaylyn McCoy of PIFSC return to the Sundancer NT after completing surveys and recording depth soundings off Timor-Leste on June 16. NOAA photo

The Sundancer NT, an aluminum catamaran (15.0 x 7.9 m) that was chartered through Compass Charters, served well during our mission. Two swim steps, one on the stern of each hull, were great entry and exit points for our dives. The vessel’s shallow draft and the expert driving of its captain, Peter Herdew, allowed us to get directly over any dive site. A tender boat served as a second dive platform, capable of holding 2 divers with scuba cylinders and the seafloor mapping tool. The mapping tool was used to opportunistically collect depth soundings to derive WorldView-2 satellite-derived depths and create accurate shallow-water bathymetry for the area, something Timor-Leste lacks at the moment. The tool consists of a transducer, processor, high-accuracy GPS unit, and a handheld computer that wirelessly receives and records data.

Regardless of the location of our first survey on a given day, by 7:30 a.m., when there was sufficient light for our visual surveys, we had already eaten breakfast, completed our safety brief and assembled our dive gear and the first team was ready to roll into the water. Typically, we wrapped up surveys by 5 p.m., leaving time to rinse and put away gear and enter the day’s data before a dinner at 8 p.m. After dinner, the team took turns reading off data entered into the database to assure quality and then headed to our bunks for the night as the Sundancer NT transited to the next survey site.

As Paula Ayotte, Kevin Lino, Kaylyn McCoy, Brett Schumacher, and I conducted surveys and collected water samples from the Sundancer NT, Sudnovsky, who was the project coordinator for this mission, and Rui Pinto, who was an invaluable local contact and master logistician from the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), followed us by land along the northern coast. Sudnovsky and Pinto visited each district prior to our arrival by sea to inform the communities about our presence in the area, the data we were collecting, and how that data can benefit them and the country of Timor-Leste. They also did an outstanding job of working with local fisheries officers, fishermen, and NGOs to raise community awareness of ocean acidification and today’s changing ocean as well as awareness of the need for local management of Timor-Leste’s nearshore reef fisheries and simple steps that can be taken to help protect local fisheries. Intermittently, Sudnovsky provided help aboard the Sundancer NT, in addition to his participation in the safety drill on the first day of the live-aboard mission. Pinto and Sudnovsky provided a banner (1 x 3 m) for the catamaran that read, “Levantamentu dadu kona-ba biomasa ikan iha Timor-Leste nia tasi-feto,” and included the insignia of all cooperating agencies: NOAA, U.S. Agency for International Development, Conservation International, CTSP, and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. This banner text translates to “Fish biomass surveys in Timor-Leste’s female sea.” The female sea is the sea to the north of the country, and the male sea is to the south.

Besides the out-of-season squalls and high winds (and subsequent wind swell) that we encountered on the second half of this mission, our biggest challenge was finding locations with the proper substrate and visibility to conduct surveys. The stationary-point-count survey method requires only reasonable visibility (~8 m) and a hard bottom at survey depths. In some areas of the Manatutu district, a number of rivers create silty bottoms and zero visibility, and we had to transit long distances between surveys.

A red lionfish (Pterois volitans) sits motionless above corals of the genus Acropora on a Timor-Leste reef on June 16. NOAA photo

A red lionfish (Pterois volitans) hovers motionless above corals of the genus Acropora on a reef off the northern coast of Timor-Leste on June 16. NOAA photo

Despite such challenges, during the live-aboard mission on June 13–27, our team completed 92 surveys throughout the 7 northern districts of Timor-Leste, reaching our goal of surveys conducted at 150 sites over our entire operation at Timor-Leste last month. We identified 456 species of fishes from 52 families during our surveys. Observed species included the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), which is nationally protected in Timor-Leste and listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), which is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. We even had 2 underwater encounters with the elusive dugong (Dugong dugon), a large mammal that is in the same order as manatees. Although we have yet to analyze the data we collected, our general impression was that, in addition to the high diversity of the areas that we surveyed, there was a general abundance of small- to medium-bodied food fishes on reefs at the depths surveyed (≤18 m) with occasional larger individuals.

We thank Captain Herdew and the Sundancer NT crew (Ian Brown, Kym Miller, and Kim Hamilton) for helping us achieve our goal of 150 sites surveyed. This expedition to collect baseline data on reef fishes and benthos for the government of Timor-Leste and NOAA has been a rewarding experience, and we are all looking forward to the results of our analyses of these survey data. Check in again at this space to hear from team lead Kevin Lino, who will provide a mission summary.

Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on June 16 reels out a transect line before he conducts a stationary-point-count survey of reef fishes off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on June 16 reels out a transect line before he conducts a stationary-point-count survey of reef fishes off the northern coast of Timor-Leste. NOAA photo

NOAA scientists, local partners mark Coral Triangle Day in Timor-Leste with capacity-building activities

By Brett Schumacher
Paula Ayotte of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and Rui Pinto, of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), review the stationary-point-count method with Nelio Viegas of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Jose Monteiro and Anselmo Lopes Amaral of CTSP on the beach at Dili Harbor.

Paula Ayotte of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and Rui Pinto, of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), review the stationary-point-count method with Nelio Viegas of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Jose Monteiro and Anselmo Lopes Amaral of CTSP on the beach at Dili Harbor, Timor-Leste.

A team of researchers from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) commemorated Coral Triangle Day on June 9 in Timor-Leste by participating in capacity-building activities with colleagues from the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP). The groundwork for these Coral Triangle Day activities was laid several days earlier, shortly after the full CRED team assembled in the Timor-Leste capital of Dili. On June 4, the team met with several members of the MAF and CTSP, and Paula Ayotte of CRED gave an overview of the stationary-point-count (SPC) survey method that CRED uses to assess and monitor fish populations and benthic composition. On Coral Triangle Day, Ayotte and Kaylyn McCoy, also of CRED, followed up on that overview by demonstrating a “dry run” of the survey method with Rui Pinto, Jose Monteiro, and Anselmo Lopes Amaral of CTSP and Nelio Viegas of MAF on shore before heading into the field for the day. Pinto provided detailed translation and some off-the-cuff humor to facilitate this capacity-building effort.

The CRED team traveled by boat to collect water samples to determine baseline levels of ocean acidification (carbonate chemistry) at Dili Rock, one of the sites near Dili where a previous CRED staff in October 2012 installed a suite of ocean acidification and biodiversity monitoring instruments: autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS), calcification accretion units (CAUs), and subsurface temperature recorders (STRs). The team demonstrated to partners from MAF and CTSP, who traveled to the site on a separate vessel, our water sampling and SPC survey protocols and showed them the suite of deployed instruments for ocean acidification monitoring.

Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division explains how to process water samples for carbonate chemistry analysis.

Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division explains how to process water samples for carbonate chemistry analysis.

Jose Monteiro of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership looks at the data sheet that Paula Ayotte of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division fills out as they conduct a stationary-point-count survey of fishes together.

Jose Monteiro of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership looks at the data sheet that Paula Ayotte of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division fills out as she conducts a stationary-point-count survey of fishes.

Once in the water, Max Sudnovsky and Brett Schumacher of CRED took water samples and Ayotte and McCoy demonstrated an SPC survey of reef fishes and benthic habitat for the MAF team. Next, the CRED team headed west of Dili to complete surveys of reef fish and benthic communities along the northern coast of Timor-Leste headed toward Liquiçá. The team moved its operations base on land from Dili to Black Rock at Caimeo Beach and reconvened with Timor-Leste partners on shore. On the beach, Kevin Lino provided an in-depth description of the water sampling protocol to our partners, and CRED staff and partners waded into the water to use Niskin bottles to practice collecting and processing water samples.

Anselmo Lopes Amaral of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) practices processing water samples as Nelio Viegas of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Jose Monteiro of CTSP, and Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) look on, along with Rui Pinto of CTSP and Andrew Gray, Paula Ayotte, and Kaylyn McCoy of CRED.

Anselmo Lopes Amaral of the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) practices processing water samples as Nelio Viegas of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Jose Monteiro of CTSP, and Kevin Lino of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) look on, along with Rui Pinto of CTSP and Andrew Gray, Paula Ayotte, and Kaylyn McCoy of CRED, and others.

A videographer from the local television news was on hand to capture these activities, and the news station featured these events on the local news the following night. Sudnovsky and Pinto were interviewed to offer some additional comments on the events for Coral Triangle Day and on our scientific and other collaborative efforts.

The day was a complicated one with a lot of tasks and groups to coordinate, but, in the end, the CRED team accomplished the dual objectives of collection of quality scientific data and interactive engagement of local colleagues and partners.

Scientists assess reef fish and benthic communities, monitor effects of ocean acidification off Timor-Leste

By Max Sudnovsky

The PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) today began a mission to conduct surveys to provide quantitative assessments of reef fishes and benthic cover and collect water samples that will be used as baselines to monitor long-term trends in carbonate chemistry (i.e., ocean acidification) along the entire northern coast of Timor-Leste in conjunction with the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), National University of Timor-Leste, and Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. This effort is part of NOAA’s work in Timor-Leste that focuses, with support from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) Timor-Leste Mission and in collaboration with the above partners, on providing technical assistance and building capacity to sustainably manage and conserve fisheries, biodiversity, and coral reefs.

This map shows the anticipated sites where an estimated 150 surveys of reef fish and benthic communities will be conducted on June 4–27 along the northern coast of Timor-Leste.

This map shows the anticipated sites where an estimated 150 surveys of reef fish and benthic communities will be conducted on June 4–27 along the northern coast of Timor-Leste.

This map shows the sites along the northern coast of Timor-Leste where water samples will be collected near both the surface of the ocean and the bottom of the seafloor on June 4–27. These sites were among the locations where a CRED team deployed equipment for ocean acidification monitoring last October.

This map shows the sites off northern Timor-Leste where water samples will be collected near both the surface of the ocean and the bottom of the seafloor on June 4–27. These sites were among the locations where a NOAA team deployed equipment for ocean acidification monitoring last October.

Paula Ayotte, Andrew Gray, Kevin Lino, Kaylyn McCoy, Brett Schumacher, and Max Sudnovsky of CRED on June 4–27 will conduct an estimated 150 surveys with scuba, to assess populations of coral reef fishes and benthic habitats at different sites along the northern coast of Timor-Leste (see map, top right). They will collect baseline data through the use of a nonextractive, diver survey method called the stationary-point-count method. Results from these surveys will allow for comparison of spatial patterns in reef fish assemblages in shallow-water habitats at depths of 0.0–18.3 m and will provide information about the relative abundance, size, general health, and diversity of the coral reef fishes near the capital of Dili and the districts of Oecuessi, Bobonaro, Liquica, Manatuto, Baucau, and Lautem, including Atauro and Jaco Islands. In addition, divers will collect data to characterize the benthic habitats. The team also will collect water samples near the surface of the ocean and the bottom of the seafloor at sites (see map, bottom right) where a CRED team deployed equipment for ocean acidification monitoring in October 2012. These water samples will help to monitor changes in the carbonate chemistry of the coral reef ecosystems of Timor-Leste.

In addition to the reef fish and benthic surveys and with generous support from the CTSP, Max Sudnovsky of CRED and Rui Pinto of the CTSP will travel on land to visit the coastal communities of Timor-Leste and host a series of education and outreach workshops with the aims of raising awareness about these baseline assessment and monitoring efforts and providing an introduction on the importance of well-managed marine ecosystems and conservation of biodiversity.

For more information on CRED activities in Timor-Leste, see these previous blog posts: https://pifscblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/final-count-timor-leste/ https://pifscblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/cred-mission-timor-leste/  https://pifscblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/timor-leste-leaders-eafm/

Brett Schumacher, Paula Ayotte, Domingos Gonçalves (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), and Kaylyn McCoy (front row, left to right) with Andrew Gray, Rui Pinto (Coral Triangle Support Partnership), Flavia Araujo da Silva (U.S. Agency for International Development), Rafael Gonçalves (Secretary of State for Fisheries), Kevin Lino, Candice Mohan (Coral Triangle Support Partnership), and Max Sudnovsky (back row, left to right) pose on June 3 at the office of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Dili, Timor-Leste. Unless otherwise specified, the personnel in this photo are members of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo

Brett Schumacher, Paula Ayotte, Domingos Gonçalves (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), and Kaylyn McCoy (front row, left to right) with Andrew Gray, Rui Pinto (Coral Triangle Support Partnership), Flavia Araujo da Silva (U.S. Agency for International Development), Rafael Gonçalves (Secretary of State for Fisheries), Kevin Lino, Candice Mohan (Coral Triangle Support Partnership), and Max Sudnovsky (back row, left to right) pose on June 3 at the office of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Dili, Timor-Leste. Unless otherwise specified, the personnel in this photo are members of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo