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.


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.


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.


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.

Map presentation

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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


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.

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.


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.

  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.

NOAA scientists quantify coral reef growth to monitor the effects of ocean acidification

by Bernardo Vargas-Ángel
Assemblage of branching and foliose corals at Swains Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by James Morioka).

Assemblage of branching and foliose corals at Swains Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by James Morioka).

Often referred to as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are some of the most biologically rich and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth. Most coral reefs occur in warm, shallow, clear waters and are built by stony corals together with other organisms that form hard, calcium carbonate skeletons over decades and centuries.

Underwater photo of coral assemblages at Fagatele Bay, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by Louise Giuseffi).

Underwater photo of coral assemblages at Fagatele Bay, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by Louise Giuseffi).

Scientists at the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center are conducting long-term research to monitor the rates at which reef organisms build their calcium carbonate skeletons and how changes in ocean chemistry, particularly ocean acidification, might impact their growth.

Ocean acidification is a global phenomenon in which increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean making the seawater more acidic. The lower pH and higher acidity of the ocean makes it harder for marine creatures, such as shellfish and corals, to build their calcium carbonate shells or skeletons.

CAU assembly unit: a. oblique view, b. side view, and c. in-situ image of deployed CAU unit (NOAA Drawing by Daniel Merritt).

CAU assembly unit: a. oblique view, b. side view, and c. in-situ image of deployed CAU unit (NOAA Drawing by Daniel Merritt).

Throughout the coral reefs of the U.S. Pacific Islands, we are monitoring the production of calcium carbonate using calcification accretion units (CAUs). These underwater units are made of two PVC plates that are placed at specific locations on coral reefs to allow for the recruitment and colonization of crustose coralline algae and hard corals onto the plates. By measuring net accretion, we can determine how much calcium carbonate is produced over a given period of time. Total net accretion on coral reefs can be calculated by measuring the change in weight of CAUs deployed on the reefs for periods of two to three years.

Newly deployed CAU assembly installed at Swains Island, American Samoa.

Newly deployed CAU assembly installed at Swains Island, American Samoa.

CAU plates encrusted with crustose coralline algae after two years of deployment.

CAU plates encrusted with crustose coralline algae after two years of deployment.

We hypothesize that net accretion will vary based on island, region, and habitat—and will change over time. By monitoring net accretion on coral reefs, we will be able to detect changes in calcification rates over time and therefore, assess the effects of ocean acidification.

Spatial distribution and mean carbonate accretion rates derived from CAU deployments by study site (left panel) and island-wide (right panel).

Spatial distribution and mean carbonate accretion rates derived from CAU deployments by study site (left panel) and island-wide (right panel).

A recently published article in the journal PLoS ONE, Baseline Assessment of Net Calcium Carbonate Accretion Rates on U.S. Pacific Reefs, presents a comprehensive baseline of carbonate accretion rates primarily by crustose coralline algae (CCA) on CAU plates deployed on coral reefs at dozens of sites across 11 islands in the central and south Pacific Ocean. The study underscores the pivotal role CCA play as a key reef calcifier and offers a unique perspective to better understand the potential effects of ocean acidification at different scenarios of future ocean chemistry.

CAU plates prepared for processing in the lab show a diverse collection of organisms (a. corralline algae, b. shellfish, c. coral, d. encrusting algae).

CAU plates prepared for processing in the lab show a diverse collection of organisms (a. corralline algae, b. shellfish, c. coral, d. encrusting algae).

Five main conclusions can be gleaned from this study:

Reef at Swains Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by Louise Giuseffi)

Reef at Swains Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by Louise Giuseffi)

  • Due to the highly variable nature of the carbonate accretion rates, it is expected that coral community responses to ocean acidification will likely vary widely between reef ecosystems, as well as between sites within islands.
  • Crustose coralline algae deposit a highly soluble form of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) known as high-Mg-calcite. Increases in the acidity of ocean water will likely result in lower CCA accretion rates.
  • Under acidified conditions CCA may lose their competitive advantage as the dominant calcifying group of the early reef colonizers, which in turn may have adverse implications for the settlement and development of other important reef calcifying organisms such as corals themselves.
  • Under the projected changes in marine seawater carbonate chemistry (e.g. ocean acidification), the ability of marine calcifying organisms to cope with such changes, and continue offering the ecosystem services they currently provide, will likely be determined by both the magnitude and rate of seawater pH decrease.
  • The combined effects of chronic human impacts, together with decreased pH from ocean acidification, will likely affect reef community structure and therefore carbonate accretion on coral reefs worldwide.

To read the full article go to:

Vargas-Ángel B, Richards CL, Vroom PS, Price NN, Schils T, Young CW, Smith J, Johnson MD, Brainard RE (2015) PLoS ONE 10(12): e0142196. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142196

Oceanographic study defines climatological ranges and anomalies for Pacific coral reef ecosystems

Jamison Gove and Oliver Vetter of the oceanography team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) and partners at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California San Diego, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, and the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa have authored a paper recently published in PLoS ONE that presents the results of their work to develop a method to generate consistent and comparable climatological data for the U.S. Pacific coral reef ecosystems surveyed by CRED as part of the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program.

Coral reefs are exposed to a range of environmental forcings that vary on daily to decadal time scales and across spatial scales that span from reefs to archipelagos. Environmental variability is a major determinant of the structure and function of reef ecosystems, including coral reef extent and growth rates and the abundance, diversity, and morphology of reef organisms. Proper characterization of environmental forcings on coral reef ecosystems, therefore, is a critical step toward understanding the dynamics and implications of abiotic–biotic interactions on reef ecosystems.

To quantify environmental forcings on coral reefs, this recently completed study combines high-resolution bathymetric information with modeled wave data and remotely sensed data of sea-surface temperature, chlorophyll-a concentration, and irradiance. Study results indicate considerable spatial heterogeneity in climatological ranges and anomalies across the 41 islands and atolls for which data were examined, with emergent spatial patterns specific to each environmental forcing. For example, wave energy was greatest at northern latitudes and generally decreased with latitude. In contrast, chlorophyll-a concentration was greatest at reef ecosystems proximate to the equator and at northern-most locations, showing little synchrony with latitude. In addition, the coral reef ecosystems with the highest chlorophyll-a concentrations—Jarvis, Howland, Baker, Palmyra and Kingman—are all uninhabited and characterized by high cover of hard corals and large numbers of predatory fishes. Metrics developed for this study will help to identify reef ecosystems most exposed to environmental stress and systems that may be more resistant or resilient to future climate change.

Long-term means in (A) sea-surface temperature, (B) wave energy, (C) chlorophyll-a concentration, and (D) irradiance in coral reef ecosystems across the U.S. Pacific.

Long-term means in (A) sea-surface temperature, (B) wave energy, (C) chlorophyll-a concentration, and (D) irradiance in coral reef ecosystems across the U.S. Pacific.

Gove JM, Williams GJ, McManus MA, Heron SF, Sandin SA, Vetter OJ, Foley DG.
2013. Quantifying climatological ranges and anomalies for Pacific coral reef ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61974. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061974

Scientists, students monitor effects of climate change on coral reefs of Verde Island Passage, Philippines

By Max Sudnovsky

About a year ago, in March 2012, a team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) in partnership with researchers at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) initiated an effort to monitor long-term trends associated with climate and ocean change around coral reefs in the Philippines. More recently, in early February, CRED scientists and UP-MSI students returned to sites that were established the previous year as part of this monitoring effort.

Across 10 sites in the municipalities of Mabini and Tingloy in the Verde Island Passage, monitoring stations were established last March with the following suite of instruments deployed: subsurface temperature recorders (STRs) to monitor long-term trends in the water temperatures around coral reefs, calcification accretion units (CAUs) to assess and monitor long-term trends in rates of calcification and reef accretion, and autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) to assess and monitor long-term trends in reef cryptobiota. Surface and bottom water samples also were collected to monitor long-term trends in carbonate chemistry and, thus, ocean acidification.

This year, on Feb. 1–4, CRED scientists Adel Heenan and Max Sudnovsky—along with Rhia Gonzales, Aya Cariño, and Diovanie De Jesus, students from the UP-MSI—returned to the 10 monitoring stations in Verde Island Passage to collect surface and bottom water samples that will be analyzed for dissolved inorganic carbon and total alkalinity. With permission from local government officials, the work was undertaken with the escort of the municipal Bantay Dagat. The Bantay Dagat, or guardians of the ocean, is an enforcement group of community volunteers concerned with fisheries-related activities and coastal patrol.

After a day of checking instruments and collecting water samples at monitoring stations in the Verde Island Passage, Philippines, (left to right) Joury of the Bantay Dagat, Max Sudnovsky of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), Aya Cariño and Diovanie De Jesus of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, and Adel Heenan of CRED stand outside of Planet Dive on Feb. 3. NOAA photo

After a day of checking instruments and collecting water samples at monitoring stations in the Verde Island Passage, Philippines, (left to right) Joury of the Bantay Dagat, Max Sudnovsky of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), Aya Cariño and Diovanie De Jesus of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, and Adel Heenan of CRED stand outside of Planet Dive on Feb. 3. NOAA photo

CRED’s role in this ongoing work is to assist the Philippines government, academic institutions, and municipalities in establishment of a long-term monitoring effort to detect trends in water temperature and pH associated with climate change and ocean acidification around this nation’s coral reefs. Through this process, we hope to strengthen local institutional and organizational capacity to continue these observations over the long-term so that future managers will have the necessary scientific information to assess and inform adaptation options for coral reef management measures.

This work was funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Regional Development Mission Asia as part of the U.S. Coral Triangle Initiative, with additional support from the Coral Triangle Support Partnership and USAID Philippines. We’d like to sincerely thank the staff and crew of Planet Dive Resort and UP-MSI and community members of Anilao, with special recognition extended to members of the Bantay Dagat for safeguarding the monitoring instruments throughout the year.