Taking Out Trash

by Kevin O’Brien

A friend of mine from Idaho just said to me, “you know, it’s good to have a job that lets you make piles.” I smiled immediately because I totally agree with him. He said, “There’s nothing like stepping outside in the morning with your cup of coffee and just gazing at your pile.” He brought it up in the context of chopping wood, in Idaho, but I feel that the concept is particularly apt for marine debris removal.

I’ve found myself “gazing at the pile” repeatedly over the last week as our team of staff volunteers and I unloaded the debris that was shipped here from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. All too often in the field of resource management, your daily impact is hard to visualize or quantify. Not so with something like this:

Marine Debris pile

100,000 pounds of marine debris removed from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Kevin O’Brien).

This giant pile of marine debris13 shipping containers holding approximately 100,000 poundsrecently traveled back to Honolulu from Midway aboard the charter vessel Kahana. This debris was collected from the reefs and beaches of Midway and Kure Atoll Wildlife Sanctuary over the last six years. Some of the debris was brought back opportunistically by NOAA ships, but much of the debris had to be stored on the tarmac at Midway until it could be shipped to Honolulu.

Debris at Midway Atoll

Fishing buoys, derelict nets, and plastic debris stored on the seaplane tarmac at Midway Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Dillon).

Thanks to support from the State of Hawai‘i, personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were able to jam-pack containers full of marine debris, crane it onto the Kahana, and ship it here to be sorted, recycled, and repurposed. You just can’t ignore the size of this pile, both as a measure of job satisfaction, but also as an indelible visual reminder of the huge challenge that we all face in combating the pervasive problem of plastics in our oceans. A problem that isn’t going away.

For the past ten years, I’ve assisted in coordinating the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris removal project and have seen first hand the dramatic impacts that marine debris has on our marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Since 1996, our team’s annual efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, have successfully removed more than 1.9 million pounds of marine debris, mostly derelict fishing gear, from the most remote reefs and shorelines of this incredible, wild, archipelago.

Hauling nets

Kevin O’Brien and Frances Lichowski remove derelict fishing nets from the coral reefs and haul them away by small boat (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Some of the debris in “the pile” is a result of our efforts at Midway Atoll where we worked to develop more efficient methods for large-scale shoreline plastics removal, enabling us to tackle this difficult aspect of marine debris for the first time. Removing debris from the sensitive environment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is critically important in many ways. Whether it’s preventing a derelict fishing net from further smothering and fragmenting a vibrant bed of porites coral, disentangling an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, or preventatively cleaning all plastics from a mile of shoreline filled with hungry albatross chicks, these actions are one of the most immediate and tangible steps we can take to ensure the continued health of this fragile ecosystem. In addition to gazing at large satisfying piles, and the thought of lots of coffee, what continues to get me up every morning is the opportunity to continue this important hands-on work.

Albatross 2013

Kevin O’Brien carefully frees a Laysan Albatross chick that was entangled in fishing net on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll in 2013 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Imagine what would happen if the trash collector stopped showing up at your home. First the can would fill up, then a few trash bags would pile up, and after a week, you’d find it spilling over into the yard and the driveway. After a few weeks, you wouldn’t be able to back your car out of the garage, and after a couple of months, the dog in your yard would be trying to lay claim to the last scrap of grassy green real estate amidst heaps of trash bags. The same analogy applies to Midway Atoll, Kure Atoll, and every island within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentonly on a scale that is daunting and with the added element of sensitive protected species instead of your family dog.

Laysan albatross P&H

Laysan albatross chick surrounded by marine debris on the remote Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

A 2006 NOAA study estimated that 52 metric tons of derelict fishing gear alone accumulates in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands every year. That doesn’t even account for the unknown tons of plastics accumulating on the shorelines. The islands and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are very remote. For example, Kure Atoll at the end of the chain is 1,368 miles from Honolulu. Conducting work of any kind here is difficult and costly due to the immense distances and tricky access to these islands.

The debris you see in this giant “pile” represents the collective cleanup efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Staff, the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and NOAA, at both Midway and Kure Atolls. It also represents a significant investment by the State to transport this marine debris back to Honolulu via charter vessel- the final missing link. It was these agencies’ willingness to collaborate, pitch in resources, and think outside the box that enabled this effort to happen.

Highlighting this marine debris removal effort is, among other things, an effort to bring together the people and organizations who are actively involved in doing management work in Hawaii’s protected areasto keep the issue of marine debris in the forefront of our collective consciousness. It is my hope, that, using this successful collaborative mission as a model, we can find creative ways to continue this important work, together. Whether that’s through forging new partnerships, fostering existing ones, pooling resources to enable larger scale efforts such as this, thinking outside the box to close the loop on the open ended flow of plastics into the ocean, or tackling prevention through education and outreach, it is clear that we are stronger and more effective when we work together.

I’d like all of us who read this and find ourselves concerned with the issue of marine debris to see ourselves as a community. A community of stewards who are responsible for protecting an important natural resource. Let’s meet each other. Let’s get to know each other better. Let’s continue this dialogue in order to maintain momentum going forward. Because, despite the satisfaction we all get from looking at a big pile like this, the ultimate goal is to someday not even have one.

Midway derelict fishing nets

A black-footed albatross surveys a beach cleared of debris piles (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/David Slater).

 

Recruits Finding a Home

By Kevin Lino

As a fish nerd (and biologist), I was excited to hear about unusual events occurring along Hawaii’s reefs this summer. While away on another research mission, reports came in from various sources and agencies about what was being referred to as a “biblical” fish recruitment event. Across many Hawaiian reefs, there were multiple reports from researchers, fishermen, and the public of juvenile reef fishes seen in extraordinary numbers. Not just one or two species either, but a wide variety of species. Species were also appearing in locations where they had previously been very rarely encountered. After seeing the pictures and reading comments about the amazing and unprecedented numbers, our team of scientists was eager to get in the water to conduct dive surveys.

Several juvenile Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus) investigate research divers.

Several juvenile Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus) investigate research divers.

This September, during the fifth year of a research partnership between the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), we got our chance. We conducted the most recent round of biannual fish and benthic dive surveys focusing on the near-shore (<18m) reef habitats of the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area (KHFMA) on the coastline of West Maui.

A large school of juvenile parrotfish and surgeonfish cruise over the reefs in the KHFMA looking for suitable grazing spots.

A large school of juvenile parrotfish and surgeonfish cruise over the reefs in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area (KHFMA) looking for suitable grazing spots.

Knowing that these surveys were occurring late in the summer, and that the recruitment may be more site-specific, we were surprised by the numbers. Nothing I would refer to as “epic” or “biblical” but definitely impressive. During four days of surveys, there was certainly an increase in recruited (the number of new young fish that enter a population in a given year) butterflyfishes, surgeonfishes, tangs, parrotfishes, and other near-shore fishes as compared to previous years. The variety was remarkable as numbers of protected herbivorous juvenile Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus), and Lavender Tang (Acanthurus nigrofuscus) were rather abundant. Since 2009, herbivorous fishes within the KHFMA have been protected, but other groups of fish can still be harvested. This unusual management approach has proven much more acceptable to the public as compared to full closure measures. Therefore, if proven effective as a means of restoring herbivorous fish populations, and preventing coral-to-algal phase shifts, then this management approach has great potential to be more widely adopted in Hawai‘i and beyond. Observations seem to be trending in this direction with further analysis forthcoming from this data set and potentially continued research.

One of the many Hawaiian Fantail Filefish (Pervagor spilosoma) recruits seen on the reef in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area (KHFMA).

One of the many Hawaiian Fantail Filefish (Pervagor spilosoma) recruits seen on the reef in the  KHFMA.

Our dive teams spent many hours underwater each day identifying, sizing, and counting these fish, as well as sea urchins, and collecting benthic imagery for more detailed analysis later. Divers also paid close attention to potential impacts to corals and the benthic community with much warmer waters being brought in by the current El Niño event. At least for now, little impact was noted during the time of our visit. El Niño is typically associated with a band of warm ocean water temperatures that periodically develop off the Pacific coast of South America and affect other areas in the Pacific. Since the mechanisms and impacts of this warmer water are still under study, the data collected this year will be especially valuable.

 A little White Tip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus) emerges from its resting spot within the shallows of the KHFMA.

A little White Tip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus) emerges from its resting spot within the shallows of the KHFMA.

There were other species sighted, likely enjoying the bounty, including the smallest white tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) that I’ve ever seen—at barely two feet long, pretty adorable. A large number of juvenile predators like Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus) and various goatfish species were also fairly common. One colorful omnivore was sighted throughout all reef habitats on nearly every survey. The Hawaiian Fantail Filefish (Pervagor spilosoma) is an endemic species (only found in Hawaiian waters) that is uncommon on most dives. But as recorded in both Hawaiian culture and historical surveys, this species will have a “bloom” or “boom” year that we were fortunate enough to witness. It will be interesting to see how all of this year’s recruits will affect things in years to come.

Researchers survey a high-priority coral reef area off Maui

By John Rooney
R/V AHI. NOAA photo

R/V AHI. NOAA photo

A team of scientists from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on Tuesday began a mission to conduct acoustic and optical surveys of the waters of coral reef ecosystems in Maui. The team shipped their 8-m survey launch R/V AHI, equipped with a diesel generator to provide power and a Reson 8101ER multibeam echosounder, to Maui from O’ahu last week to support this survey effort.

Optical surveying will focus on one of two high-priority coral reef sites in Hawai’i identified by the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP): an area near Kahekili off West Maui (see map below at left). In 2013, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted shallow-water mapping in the area, generally at depths of 10–40 m. The present survey effort on Feb. 4–21 will collect video and still photographs of the seafloor at depths of 30–100 m to overlap with and extend the USGS maps out to the 3-mile boundary of state waters or to a depth of ~100 m.

The red box in this map indicates the survey area where the camera sled will be deployed. This area off Kahekili, Maui, has been designated by the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources and NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program as one of two high-priority sites in the state.

The red box in this map indicates the survey area where the camera sled will be deployed. This area off Kahekili, Maui, has been designated by the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources and NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program as one of two high-priority sites in the state (click image for a larger version).

For the surveys, members of the CRED ecospatial information team will use an underwater camera sled, called the “TOAD,” for towed optical assessment device (see photo below at right). The data collected during these TOAD surveys will enable the team to map the dominant seafloor structures (e.g., pavement, patch reef, and sand) and the major classes of biologic cover (e.g., coral and macroalgae) in the area. The extended maps will provide DLNR and other management agencies and coastal and marine stakeholders with the spatial data needed to make informed decisions about the management of nearshore marine resources and habitats.

The second goal of this survey mission is to fill gaps in existing maps that depict seafloor depths, or bathymetry, with a high degree of detail. No type of seafloor map is of higher value to more people than are maps of high-resolution bathymetry. However, gaps in existing maps (see map below) inhibit their use for many purposes.

To collect data to fill some of those gaps, the survey team will operate the multibeam echosounder on the R/V AHI. They’ll first fill remaining gaps in the data for the Kahekili high-priority site, and then they will spend the remaining time surveying in the most windward and exposed sites in which they are able to operate.

The video and still photographs collected by the towed optical assessment device (TOAD), the camera sled shown being deployed from a ship in this photo, can be analyzed to help map the character of benthic habitats. NOAA photo

The video and still photographs collected by the towed optical assessment device (TOAD), the camera sled shown being deployed from a ship in this photo, can be analyzed to help map the character of benthic habitats. NOAA photo

After the mission, the team will clean and process the data and then provide them to NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center to be made publicly available for download. The data also will be provided to the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa for inclusion in the synthesis of high-resolution bathymetry data that SOEST has maintained for many years.

Funding for this project was provided by the CRCP. We thank the Hawai’i DLNR for graciously providing logistical support and the USGS for going out of their way to send us copies of their existing data and publications.

Follow this link for a PDF version of this story about the latest mapping surveys off Maui.

For more information about this mission and CRED benthic habitat mapping, contact John Rooney, program manager for the ecospatial information team, at john.rooney@noaa.gov.
This map shows existing high-resolution bathymetry collected around Maui, color coded by depth and superimposed over a nautical chart.

This map shows existing high-resolution bathymetry collected around Maui, color coded by depth and superimposed over a nautical chart.

Researchers resurvey grounding site off south shore of O`ahu

By John Rooney

Researchers from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently completed a small-boat mission (SB-13-25) during which they resurveyed the grounding site of the USS Port Royal, which ran aground in February 2009 nearly 1 km south of Reef Runway off the south shore of O`ahu. At the request of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources, CRED staff members Frances Lichowski, Faith Knighton, Rhonda Suka, Jeremy Taylor, and John Rooney aboard the R/V AHI on Thursday, Jan. 9, collected acoustic data and video and still imagery of the seafloor with a Reson SeaBat 8101 multibeam echosounder and a camera sled.

The original goal of this mission also was accomplished: the team installed and conducted a patch test to calibrate the SeaBat 8101 echosounder on the R/V AHI and made sure the vessel and equipment were ready for acoustic and optical surveying around Maui in February. In addition, the team tested a new strobe light for the CRED camera sled, called “TOAD” for towed optical assessment device, under survey conditions and made adjustments to camera settings to improve the quality of still imagery collected by the sled.

The acoustic and optical data collected on Jan. 9 and during similar surveys will help fill gaps in existing data sets, enhancing their utility for spatially based management of the resources of coral reef ecosystems.

This map shows bathymetry, data on the depths and shapes of underwater terrain, from a previous survey of the grounding site of the USS Port Royal conducted with a multibeam sonar by the mapping team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division in December 2010, also at the request of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources. Bathymetry grids from both the 2010 and 2014 surveys will be compared to look for movement of rubble or other changes.

This map shows bathymetry, data on the depths and shapes of underwater terrain, from a previous survey of the grounding site of the USS Port Royal conducted with a multibeam sonar by the mapping team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division in December 2010, also at the request of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources. Bathymetry grids from both the 2010 and 2014 surveys will be compared to look for movement of rubble or other changes.

Scientists continue surveys of a marine protected area in Maui

By Kevin Lino
Schools of fish swim over a healthy reef off Ka`anapali, Maui, on April 23 during a mission in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. Photo by Darla White, Hawaii Division of Land and Natural Resources

Schools of fish swim over a healthy reef off Ka`anapali, Maui, on April 23 during a mission in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. Photo by Darla White, Hawai`i Division of Land and Natural Resources

To help assess the effectiveness of an unusual approach to management of marine resources in Hawaii, our team spent the week of April 22 conducting underwater surveys of fishes and benthic habitat along the coastline of West Maui in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA). This diving effort, funded in part by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, continued a partnership between the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) and the Maui office of the Division of Aquatic Resources, Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

During this mission, we completed 99 surveys in the nearshore (depths <18 m) reef habitats of the KHFMA in just 4 days of diving. CRED divers Ivor Williams and I paired with staff and volunteers from the DLNR to conduct surveys. Each team consisted of one diver focused on fish surveys and one diver focused on benthic surveys. Divers donned thick wetsuits for the long dives necessary to swim along multiple transects and identify, size, and count fish species, identify and count sea urchins, and collect benthic imagery for later analyses. With several sea turtle cleaning stations, a passing manta ray, and sections of gorgeous reef before us and the songs of humpback whale in the background during our surveys, it was inconceivable to not want to collect data needed to monitor marine life in areas like this one in our beautiful state.

The stunning color and spines of the red slate pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mammillatus) stand out on a reef off West Maui. Sea urchins are protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The stunning color and spines of the red slate pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mammillatus) stand out on a reef off West Maui. Sea urchins are protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The state of Hawai`i created the KHFMA along a stretch of coastline approximately 3 km long in Ka`anapali, West Maui. The KHFMA, which was established in July 2009, involves a form of management that is unique in Hawai’i, namely protection of coral reef herbivores (e.g., surgeonfishes, parrotfishes, chubs, and sea urchins), which may not be killed, injured, or harvested within the boundaries of this fisheries management area. The purpose of the KHFMA is to restore natural grazing processes and ultimately increase the local reef’s ability to resist and recover from excessive algal growth that is detrimental to corals. To further promote grazing by local fish stocks, feeding of fishes, other than for legal fishing, also is banned within the KHFMA. The KHFMA does not in any way restrict fishing of other types of fishes or invertebrates.

The yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), as seen in the photo above taken on a reef off West Maui, is an example of the fishes protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

The yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), as seen in the photo above taken on a reef off West Maui, is an example of the fishes protected in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. NOAA photo by Kevin Lino

Although uncommon, this dynamic, targeted management approach appears to be much more acceptable to the public compared to measures of full closure. Therefore, if proven effective as a means of restoring herbivorous fish populations and preventing coral-to-algal phase shifts, this approach has great potential for management of other areas in Hawai`i and beyond.

Another positive part of this project is the hard work and cheerfulness of our DLNR partners, especially Darla White, who always impresses us with her dedication, organization, and enthusiastic outreach efforts. As visitors snorkeled above (and sometimes within) our shallower surveys, I hoped they enjoyed their time in the water, whether or not they knew how our long days and tough work monitoring the area might have been enhancing their experience. After participating for several years in this biannual survey, I find it rewarding to know that the research we conduct there contributes to the evaluation of the effectiveness of this marine protected area.

Researchers continue study of pollution effects on coral health off West Maui

By Erin Looney

Erin Looney of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently worked with Darla White of the Division of Aquatic Resources of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources to collect water samples off West Maui. This effort continued a study that began last fall: “Environmental investigation into impacts of land-based sources of pollution on coral health in West Maui, HI.” This research is funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and led by Cheryl Woodley, PhD, of Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, S.C.

Water samples were collected on Jan. 26–Feb. 4 at 15 sites from La Perouse to Kapalua Bay. The samples were taken to a temporary lab where Looney filtered samples onto selective media to isolate fecal coliforms, Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, and Serratia marcescens. Water samples also were shipped on dry ice to Hollings Marine Laboratory for further toxicological processing.

Examples of the dilution of water samples used to assess the level and identity of fecal-associated bacteria in waters off West Maui. (a) Duplicate plates with filtered samples from a site called Sand Channel on the following media (top to bottom): mannitol salt agar (MSA), a medium that encourages the growth of Staphylococcus, 1 mL; MSA, 10 mL; membrane-Enterococcus Indoxyl-β-D- glucoside (mEI), which is used to culture Enterococcus; deoxyribonuclease-toluidine blue-cephalothin (DTC), which is used to grow Serratia marcescens, and membrane filtration fecal coliform (mFC), which is used to grow fecal coliforms. (b) A set of duplicate plates with a 10-mL dilution on MSA. Each dot represents a colony, and the average number of colonies on these plates is ~140. Thus, in 10 mL of water taken at Sand Channel, there were 140 colonies of Staphylococcus. (c) A set of duplicate plates of filtered samples on mFC media. NOAA photos by Erin Looney

Examples of the dilution of water samples used to assess the level and identity of fecal-associated bacteria in waters off West Maui.     (a) Duplicate plates with filtered samples from a site called Sand Channel on the following media (top to bottom): mannitol salt agar (MSA), a medium that encourages the growth of Staphylococcus, 1 mL; MSA, 10 mL; membrane-Enterococcus Indoxyl-β-D- glucoside (mEI), which is used to culture Enterococcus; deoxyribonuclease-toluidine blue-cephalothin (DTC), which is used to grow Serratia marcescens, and membrane filtration fecal coliform (mFC), which is used to grow fecal coliforms. (b) A set of duplicate plates with a 10-mL dilution on MSA. Each dot represents a colony, and the average number of colonies on these plates is ~140. Thus, in 10 mL of water taken at Sand Channel, there were 140 colonies of Staphylococcus. (c) A set of duplicate plates of filtered samples on mFC media.    NOAA photos by Erin Looney