This is the end, beautiful friend, the end

by Molly Timmers

After three days of travel across space and time, we arrived in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. This country is located about an hour’s flight northwest from Darwin, Australia across the Timor Sea. It shares its border with Indonesia, which occupies the western half of the island of Timor. Unbeknownst to most, Timor-Leste only just recently became a sovereign nation after years of struggle and resistance to an Indonesian occupation. Having gained its independence in 2002, this country is one of the newest countries in the world. It is also one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world for coral reefs.

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Reef at Atauro Island, Timor-Leste (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Molly Timmers).

Timor-Leste resides within the Coral Triangle, a region known as the center of marine biodiversity. As a result of its geographical location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and its geological history, the Coral Triangle has the highest coral and fish diversity in the world.  It hosts 76% (605) of the world’s coral species (798) and 37% (2228) of known coral reef fish species (6000). This incredibly diverse region includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and of course, Timor-Leste.

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Map of the six countries of the Coral region. Solid line shows scientific boundary of the Coral Triangle (Veron et al., 2009). Dashed line shows the Exclusive Economic Zones of the six countries (Image courtesy of Coral Triangle Secretariat).

As a new country, Timor-Leste began working toward developing management strategies to protect and conserve their coral reefs and the animals that live within. However, they found it challenging to proceed because scientific information about their nearshore coastal resources was limited. Thus, in 2011, the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) requested assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NOAA to support them in addressing the following 5 questions:

  • Where are Timor-Leste’s nearshore marine resources?
  • What are Timor-Leste’s nearshore resources?
  • How are coastal resources changing over time?
  • What are the threats causing those changes?
  • What approaches are needed to help manage and conserve nearshore resources over the long-term?

TIMOR_COVER_image As a result, USAID requested the assistance of NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. With over 15 years of experience mapping and monitoring the coral reef ecosystems and their associated threats across U.S. Pacific coral reefs, CREP agreed to assist Timor-Leste in their efforts to address these questions by conducting baseline surveys over the period 2012 to 2016 under the partnership agreement between MAF, USAID, and NOAA. Last month, we returned to Timor-Leste to conclude this partnership by delivering the Final Report to our Timor-Leste partners and working with them on how to utilize the collected data to inform ecosystem-based coastal resource management planning in Timor-Leste.

On the 26th of June, we presented the Final Report produced by our program in an all-day workshop event and provided a separate training on how to use the data in a geospatial format (aka, mapping software) the following day.  The all-day workshop was held at MAF’s new conference center.  Over 70 people from 19 agencies attended, including: Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries; Ms. Karen Stanton, the U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste; and Jose Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one of Timor-Leste’s former presidents who signed the agreement for Timor-Leste to become one of the six Coral Triangle Initiative countries. The U.S. Embassy graciously provided their interpreter who translated in real-time between Tetun (the locale Timorese language) and English through wireless ear bud systems that enabled us to seamlessly share our presentations and effectively engage our audience in question and answer sessions.

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Photograph from the all-day workshop hosted by the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), led by NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (NOAA CREP), and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). From left to right: Acacio Guterres, Director General for Fisheries (MAF); Raimundo Mau, Program Manager, Conservation International; former Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta; Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, Minister of MAF; Karen Stanton, U.S. Ambassador; Diana Putman, USAID Mission Director; Molly Timmers (NOAA CREP); Flavia da Silva (USAID); and Annette DesRochers (NOAA CREP).

Ambassador Stanton opened the workshop and Minister da Silva followed with his opening remarks. To symbolize the closure of this 5-year partnership, we presented copies of the Final Report and detailed scientific maps to Ambassador Stanton who then proceeded to hand them to the Minister.  Once the symbolic hand-off was complete, the workshop commenced.

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U.S. Ambassador Karen Stanton presents the map posters prepared by the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program to Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

We started with a series of presentations on the project background and key findings. This was followed by a nearly two-hour question and answer session and a delicious late lunch due to the high-level of engagement by the participants. After lunch, more detailed presentations ensued. We framed our presentations around MAF’s 5 original questions and shared in more detail the work that we did to try and answer their questions. To make this information as accessible as possible, the report and data are freely available and hosted online at NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System. Once we finished with all we had to share, we had another question and answer session followed by closing remarks made by Diana Putman, the USAID Timor-Leste Mission Director, and Acacio Guterres, Director General for Fisheries (MAF).

The following day we conducted a hands-on training for MAF employees on how to use the data we produced for MAF. They learned how to access and convert the survey data so it could be displayed in mapping software with other spatial data, and how they could “ask questions” of the data using the mapping tools. Participants learned how to work with data in new ways that they previously didn’t know were possible.

For our final day, we spent the afternoon meeting with our partners answering last minute questions; this officially brought an end to our partnership. It is with such sweet sorrow that we see this project come to an end. Many of us at CREP have spent time in Timor-Leste over the past five years helping with this project and found Timor-Leste to be a home away from home. The Timorese are a gracious, kind, and motivated people. They want to protect and conserve their coral reefs and hopefully in time, they will have the capacity themselves to establish their own long-term monitoring program just as we did 15 years ago here in the U.S. Pacific Islands. We hope the work that we’ve done and the time we’ve invested will get them started down the path towards our mutual goal to protect and conserve coral reefs ecosystems.

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Shallow reef along the west side of Atauro Island, Timor-Leste (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Kevin Lino).

What happens to reef fish after coral bleaching?

by Adel Heenan

For the past month, researchers aboard the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai have been navigating across the Pacific Ocean to survey coral reef ecosystems at remote Wake Atoll and the Mariana Archipelago. This expedition includes additional surveys at Jarvis Island, in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, to assess the reef condition and degree of recovery from a catastrophic coral bleaching event in 2014-2015.


Jarvis Island is located in the central Pacific Ocean, close to the equator, and is a small island in the direct path of a deep current that flows east (Figure 1). Because of it’s position right on the equator and the strong currents hitting the island, Jarvis sits in the middle of a major upwelling zone—where cold nutrient rich water is drawn up from the deep. This water fertilizes the whole area, elevating nutrient levels and productivity in the reef ecosystem (Gove et al., 2006). As a result, Jarvis supports exceptionally high biomass of planktivorous and piscivorous fishes (Williams et al., 2015).

Because it is unpopulated and extremely remote, Jarvis provides an important reference point and opportunity to understand the natural structure, function, and variation in coral reef ecosystems. The island also offers a natural laboratory in which the effects of ocean warming can be assessed in the absence of stressors that impact coral reefs where humans are present (e.g., fishing or land-based sources of pollution).

El Niño, La Niña and the global coral bleaching event of 2014-2015
The Equatorial Pacific upwelling at Jarvis alternates between warm El Niño years, when upwelling is weak and oceanic productivity low, and cold La Niña years where upwelling is strong and productivity is high (Gove et al., 2006). Unusually warm sea surface temperatures, and a strong El Niño in 2014-2015, triggered the third recorded global coral bleaching event. At Jarvis, these warmer waters led to widespread coral bleaching and mortality. High sea surface temperatures in 2015 also impacted upwelling at Jarvis, as evidenced by a decrease in the primary productivity around the island.

Teams from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program recently completed ecological monitoring at Jarvis from April 2–5, 2017. They collected data at 28 stationary point count sites (Figure 2) this year, 30 in 2016, 62 in 2015, 42 in 2012, and 30 in 2010.

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Figure 2. The stationary point count method is used to monitor the fish assemblage and benthic communities at the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) sites.

Main Observations
Fish biomass tended to be highest on the western side of the island where equatorial upwelling occurs (Figure 3). In 2016, we observed somewhat reduced total fish and total planktivore biomass (Figure 4), but this reduction was within the normal range of observed variability.

There were some significant reductions observed for individual species in 2016. These reductions were noticeable across multiple trophic groups, for instance the planktivorous Whitley’s fusilier (Luzonichthys whitleyi), Olive anthias (Pseudanthias olivaceus), Dark-banded fusilier (Pterocaesio tile), the piscivorous Island trevally (Carangoides orthogrammus), and the coral-dwelling Arc-eyed hawkfish (Paracirrhites arcatus) which is strongly associated with Pocillopora coral heads. Some of these species had returned to previous ranges by 2017, but others remain depleted (Figure 5).

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Figure 5. Mean species biomass (± standard error) per survey year at Jarvis.

Very high levels of coral mortality were evident in 2016 surveys and coral cover remained low in 2017. Notably, macroalgal cover increased in 2017, approximately by the amount of coral cover lost in 2016 (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. Mean percentage cover estimates (± standard error) of benthic habitat per survey year at Jarvis. Data shown for Hard Coral (top, red); macrolagae (middle, green) and CCA: crustose coralline algae (bottom, orange). Note: no benthic data are available for 2008 as we began collected rapid visual estimates of these benthic functional groups in 2010.

Whether this reduction in specific planktivore, piscivore, and live coral-dwelling fish species is a widespread and long-standing shift in the fish assemblages at Jarvis will be the subject of forthcoming research. It seems plausible that they reflect impacts of a prolonged period of reduced food availability and changes to preferred habitat due to the anomalous warm sea conditions in 2014–2015. Our teams will return to Jarvis in 2018 to conduct another assessment in an attempt to answer some of these questions.

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An emaciated grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchus) observed during a 2017 fish survey. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Adel Heenan)

Additional detail on survey methods and sampling design are available in the full monitoring brief: Jarvis Island time trends 2008-2017.

References
Gove J. et al. (2006) Temporal variability of current-driven upwelling at Jarvis Island. J Geo Res: Oceans 111, 1-10, doi: 10.1029/2005JC003161.
Williams I. et al. (2015) Human, oceanographic and habitat drivers of central and western Pacific coral reef fish assemblages. PLoS 10: e0120516, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120516.

 

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.

“Data do not speak for themselves” – Analyzing social science data in Micronesia

by Supin Wongbusarakum
Coral reef along the coastline of the Rock Islands, Palau.

Coral reef along the coastline of the Rock Islands, Palau.

Data do not speak for themselves; there is always an interpreter, or a translator (Ratcliffe 1983[1]).

While nature conservation and natural resource management efforts are increasing throughout the Pacific Islands, the importance of balancing ecological health with human well-being is also increasingly recognized. In Micronesia, the ocean spans nearly three million square miles and is home to approximately 500 species of corals and 1,300 species of fish. But it is also home to more than half a million people living in communities with a close relationship with both land and sea.

These relationships are now being profoundly challenged by external factors such as the global economy and the impacts of a changing climate. In the vast region of Micronesia, effective conservation means ensuring sustainable livelihoods through subsistence and earned income, maintaining cultural integrity, engaging in good natural resource governance, and promoting environmental education[2]. We know these different aspects of conservation are all important, but how do we know if they are actually being carried out consistently and sustainably in the region? How do we know if conservation and natural resource management have contributed to positive changes in the region without adverse human impacts?

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Woodcarving detail that depicts a famous story of a magical breadfruit tree (from the Etpison Museum, Palau).

In 2010, we launched socioeconomic monitoring in Micronesia based on SEM-Pasifika (Socioeconomic Monitoring Guidelines for Coastal Managers in Pacific Island Countries). This community-based monitoring effort aims to better understand the conditions of communities in areas with active resource management. In the past few years, we offered several socioeconomic assessment training sessions based on SEM-Pasifika in Micronesia and also provided technical assistance to local teams who collect qualitative and quantitative data in the field. Last year, I conducted a capacity needs assessment to identify further gaps in knowledge and information. The results showed an immediate need for analysis of social science data.

To address this issue, I worked with a network of partner organizations to hold a socioeconomic data analysis workshop in Koror, Palau from September 12-17, 2016. The workshop was funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, with support from many partners—including the Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, Pacific Islands Managed and Protected Areas Community, Micronesia Conservation Trust, Palau International Coral Reef Center, and several other organizations and agencies involved in marine conservation and resource management in Micronesia. Participants attended from Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap), Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Hawai‘i.

Matt Gorstein, Social Scientist and Natural Resource Economist from NOAA’s Hollings Marine Laboratory, joined me as a co-trainer. Combining his experience and expertise in analyzing socioeconomic data from the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program—and using preliminary data collected from the NOAA Habitat Blueprint site in Manell-Geus, Guam as well as other sites in Micronesia and Hawai‘i—we had a fully packed and productive training covering a wide range of topics. We started with data entry, created a code-book, and documented work-flow, while also addressing differences among qualitative (e.g. from interviews) and quantitative data (from surveys). We discussed the use of best practices in data entry, management, and analysis. Matt and I provided a comprehensive overview of how to use IBM’s Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS) to run descriptive and inferential statistics. The training was regularly reinforced by hands-on exercises and summarized with quizzes.

In the course evaluation, the majority of participants rated the overall training as being extremely useful. One of the participants said, I feel much more confident in examining social survey data more critically. I have stronger ability in designing future assessment with stronger understanding in how data is analyzed.” Another participant stated, “I actually learned more in this workshop than the stats class. Also SPSS is such a useful tool and I am glad I know how to use it now.” With the skills and knowledge gained in this workshop, we hope that the participants will be able to analyze and interpret socioeconomic data more effectively. Their new skills will support efforts to improve coastal and marine resource management and conservation—while balancing ecological health with social well-being.

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Trainers and participants of Socioeconomic Data Analysis Training Workshop. Back row, left to right: Angel Jonathan (Conservation Society of Pohnpei), Kailikea Shayler (Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Aquatic Resources), Matt Gorstein (NOAA Hollings Marine Laboratory), Bond Segal (Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization), Jane Dia (Guam Department of Agriculture, Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources), Mochieg Reyuw (Yap Community Action Program), Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong (Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance), Rachael Nash (Micronesia Challenge Regional Office) Front row, left to right: Noelle Oldiais (independent researcher, formerly Palau International Coral Reef Center), Erin Zanre (Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Aquatic Resources), Supin Wongbusarakum (PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program), Marybelle Quinata (NOAA Guam Field Office), Lincy Marino (Palau International Coral Reef Center), Alicia Edwards (Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority)

[1] Ratcliffe, J. W. 1983. Notions of validity in qualitative research methodology. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 5(2), 147-167.
[2] Based on results of Micronesia Challenge 1st (2012) and 2nd (2015) Socioeconomic Measures Workshops and Micronesia Challenge Measures Working Group Scorecards Workshop (2016).

What do a plastic toy, a mismatched pair of slippers, and hagfish trap have in common? They all wash up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands!

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A beach at Laysan Island littered with a vast variety of marine debris. (NMFS Photo)

Even these extremely remote, uninhabited, and protected islands are littered with marine debris.  In fact, islands in the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago can be particularly inundated with debris due to their proximity to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a current that can carry and concentrate debris that enters the ocean from points throughout the Pacific.

But does marine debris still make a beach ugly if no sunbathers are there to see it?  Yes!  Marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands poses a serious threat to sea birds that can mistakenly eat plastic materials or feed it to their young, and to endangered Hawaiian monk seals that can become dangerously entangled in debris.

During the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s Assessment and Recovery Camps, biologists don’t just study the seals, they also work to safeguard the environment for monk seals and other wildlife.  During the 2016 field season, monk seal field teams have been collecting marine debris as part of an archipelago-wide beach clean-up.  They also removed debris from established plots to assess the rate of debris accumulation. One team spent 6 hours to remove all the debris from just a 20m plot! And, of course, they removed entanglement hazards as they arose.  This marks the second year that the monk seal team has been collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris team to make the NWHI a better place for wildlife.

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Monk seals easily become entangled in nets, line, or other debris as they rest or investigate foreign material. (NMFS Photo)

As part of the on-going research cruise on the Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette, our crews have been removing the season’s worth of debris from the islands.  Teams removed 4 debris super sacks (large bags weighing 100-500 lb each!) from Laysan Island and 5 super sacks from Lisianski Island.  So far, over 3,300 lb of debris have been hoisted onto the Sette.  And more is waiting at other camps!  And it’s just a drop in the bucket!  Every field biologist in the camps expressed satisfaction in removing so much debris, but frustration at the amount that still remains and continues to accumulate.

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Camp and cruise personnel heft large super sacks of debris from Lisianski Island into a small boat that will transport the debris to the Sette. (NMFS Photo)

But on the bright side – excess debris does lead to creativity.  Some campers get pretty crafty with marine debris!

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Team Lisianski made a nice camp sign out of a washed up plastic lid. (NMFS Photo)

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Field biologist Ilana Nimz used derelict fishing line and floats to weave a dream catcher – dreaming of a debris free beach! (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

Assessing impacts of coral bleaching: NOAA scientists embark on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago

by Drs. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel and Rusty Brainard
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French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NOAA Photo)

Today, scientists from the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program boarded the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai to begin a 75-day Hawaiian Archipelago Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (HARAMP) research mission. The goal of this mission is to document the status and trends of the coral reef ecosystems of the populated main Hawaiian Islands and the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

As part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, this HARAMP expedition will conduct the first statewide surveys to assess the overall impacts of two back-to-back mass coral bleaching events, which occurred in 2014 and 2015 and were caused by unusually warm water temperatures. When water temperatures reach 1°C warmer than their usual summertime maximum, many corals begin to lose the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, making them look white — that is, they become “bleached.”

This expedition will be the 6th monitoring cruise in the main Hawaiian Islands and the 10th monitoring cruise in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands led by the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program and partner agencies since 2000. It’s designed to provide an ongoing, consistent flow of information to document the status and long-term trends of the coral reefs and changing environmental conditions.

These statewide monitoring surveys will complement the local and site-specific coral reef monitoring efforts led by our partner agencies and institutions. Partners participating in this mission include scientists from the State of Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic ResourcesThe Nature ConservancyHawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, and San Diego State University, among others.

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Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure installed on left, calcification accretion unit on right (NOAA Photo)

Scientists will survey the coral reefs around each of the main Hawaiian Islands, including Ni‘ihau, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Molokai, Lāna‘i, Maui, Kaho‘olawe, and Hawai‘i Islands, and the coral reefs at French Frigate Shoals, Lisianski/Neva Shoals, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Each day, they will deploy 4–5 small boats with a team of scientific divers from the Hi`ialakai to conduct in-water surveys of the different reef zones, such as forereef, backreef, and lagoons around the different sides of each island or atoll ecosystem. We often find that the coral reefs and associated organisms vary greatly between leeward and windward sides of islands that are exposed to different environmental conditions, such as waves and currents.

Coral Reef

Under the direction of Chief Scientists Drs. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel in the main Hawaiian Islands and Brett Schumacher in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the different dive teams will conduct underwater surveys of reef fishes, corals, other invertebrates, algae, and microbes. They will deploy and retrieve Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures, or ARMS, to assess the biodiversity of ‘cryptic’ coral reef species that live within the reef (small crabs, shrimp, snails, etc.).

Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) installed at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) installed at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Close-up of ARMS unit at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Close-up of ARMS unit at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Calcification accretion unit installed at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Calcification accretion unit installed at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additionally, oceanographers aboard the Hi`ialakai will collect data on water temperature, salinity, carbonate chemistry, and other physical characteristics of the coral reef environment with an assortment of oceanographic monitoring instruments. Among other things, they’re monitoring the ecological impacts of ocean acidification by determining the rates of reef growth and reef removal using tools called calcification accretion units and bioerosion monitoring units, respectively, which are deployed on the reef substrate for three years.

Data collected by the scientific staff of this cruise are pivotal to long-term biological and oceanographic monitoring of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago. This 2016 HARAMP expedition will help inform scientists, resource managers, and policy makers about changes that have occurred compared with similar surveys conducted in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 (main Hawaiian Islands only), 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013.

Hawaiian Archipelago Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program Cruise 2016 Timeline

In particular, data on the abundance and spatial distribution of reef fishes and benthic organisms will allow scientists to evaluate potential changes in the condition and integrity of coral reef ecosystems across the Hawaiian Archipelago. It will also enable federal and state resource managers to more effectively manage and conserve reef-associated animal and plant life in the region. This year’s surveys are particularly important since many of the coral reefs experienced mass coral bleaching in both 2014 and 2015, and these surveys will provide an opportunity to assess the net change in coral cover for each of the islands across the archipelago.