About the Expedition
On January 21, 2010, scientists from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (CRED/PIFSC), along with visiting scientists from the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego State University, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and local agencies in American Samoa, departed on a three month expedition to Johnston Atoll, Howland and Baker Islands, American Samoa, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai. This is the fifth biennial Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP) expedition to American Samoa and the seventh to the Pacific Remote Island Areas. The expedition is sponsored by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) and is divided into three segment sequentially led by Chief Scientists Benjamin Richards, Rusty Brainard and Jamison Gove.READ MORE...
The strategic goal of this research is to improve scientific understanding of coral reef ecosystems throughout the Pacific, and serve as the basis for improved conservation and resource management. The recent designation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument highlights the importance of this research.
With their extremely isolated location, many of the Pacific Remote Island Areas host a vibrate marine ecosystem. Previous Pacific RAMP cruises have documented relatively high coral cover and diversity; and high densities of large-bodied reef fish including large numbers of apex predators such as Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) and Scalloped Hammerhead sharks (Sphyraena lewini). Many of these apex predators are rare near human population centers. AS in previous years, this Pacific RAMP cruise will perform a suite of standardized multi-disciplinary methods which include Rapid Ecological Assessments (REA) for fish, corals, other large invertebrates, and algae; towed-diver surveys for large-bodied fish and habitat composition; and oceanographic studies, which include the measurement of conductivity, temperature, and density of the water column (CTD casts); water sampling; and deployment of sea-surface temperature (SST), subsurface temperature recorders (STR) and acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCP). Scientists will also be deploying Ecological Acoustic Recorders (EARs) to learn about changes in the presence and activity of marine mammals, fish, crustaceans and other sound-producing marine life when researchers aren't there to record it otherwise. Autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) will also be deployed as part of the CReefs project. ARMS are simple, standardized collecting structures designed to roughly mimic the structural complexity of reef habitats. They allow for the identification of small, hard-to-sample, but ecologically important cryptic invertebrates. ARMS are being utilized throughout the Pacific and globally to systematically assess spatial patterns and temporal changes of biodiversity. Use of the EARS and ARMS are an exciting addition to RAMP data collection efforts.Follow along below to learn more about where we are going, what we are seeing, and what we have found ...
Saturday, February 27, 2010
One of the many benefits of conducting coral reef research is the cool critters we encounter almost every day. Whether it is something big, such as a shark, turtle or dolphin, or something small, such as a nudibranch, sea anemone or crinoid, these creatures are all amazing in their own way. Here are a few examples of what we're seeing. All of these organisms were seen in a reef environment between 10 and 20 meters (30 - 60 feet) deep. Enjoy!
Friday, February 26, 2010
|Flying Fox seen over Cockscomb, Tutuila (photograph by Benjamin Richards)|
Natural History Guide to American Samoa, 3rd edition, 2009. P. Craig, editor
Thursday, February 25, 2010
|Collecting water samples|
by Tracey McDole
There are, however, some marine viruses that cause disease in reef macroorganisms. Did you know that corals get tumors, a growth anomaly that may be caused by viruses in the family Herpesviridae? Don’t get me wrong, in a healthy reef ecosystem, viruses and microbes play beneficial roles. The coral reef food web is structured so that energy and materials flow from the microbes to macrobes, and back again. Therefore, both viral and bacterial communities are essential components of any healthy reef system.
One of the biggest and most pressing questions that coral reef scientists are currently trying to understand is: How do the combined effects of pollution, overfishing, and climate change result in degraded coral reefs? One way to start is to determine if both groups of organisms (macrobes and microbes) function and interact differently on healthy versus degraded reef systems.
|Microorganisms vs. Macroorganisms|
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
|Crinoid or Sea Lily from American Samoa (photograph by Cristi Richards)|
Today the benthic team recovered three Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) which have been attached to the seafloor in Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, American Samoa, for the past two years. This smallest and most remote of all the National Marine Sanctuaries is also the only true tropical reef in the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Fagatele Bay, on the southwestern coast of the island of Tutuila is a small eroded volcanic crater which provides shelter for a wide variety of organisms that thrive in its protected waters.
After locating the dive site, we slipped over the side of the boat into crystal clear waters and descended to a sea floor covered in coral. We located the three ARMS easily and, after installing a new set of ARMS and a set of calcification plates which will be used to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification, we removed the old ARMS and brought them to the surface.
After returning to the ship, we spent several hours disassembling the ARMS and sorting through all the various creatures who had made it their home. The biodiversity was amazing. We found a host of crabs, snails, shrimps and a myriad of other tiny and amazing creatures. We also found our first crinoid.
Crinoids, or sea lilies, are echinoderms (relatives of sea stars and sea urchins) and have lived in the tropical oceans since at least the Ordovician period (~450 million years ago). Like sea stars and urchins, most crinoids are free swimming and feed by filtering small particles from the passing water with their feathery arms. Once the food is trapped by a sticky mucus on the tube feet, it is moved towards the mouth at the center of the body. It has been found that crinoids living in environments with a relatively low abundance of plankton have longer arms than those living in plankton-rich waters. This is presumably to increase the surface area where food can be trapped.
Finding a such a beautiful and delicate creature in the ARMS was exciting for members of the ARMS team as well as for those who stopped by the lab to glimpse the latest arrivals from the reef. The diversity of cryptic invertebrates being found is an exciting testimony to how much more there is to learn about reef ecosystems. As part of the Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) project of the Census of Marine Life, CRED is collaborating with international partners to deploy ARMS on coral reefs around the globe to establish biodiversity baselines and monitor changes over time.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
|Aunu'u and Tutuila (left to right), photo taken by PIBHMC|
After nearly a month into our cruise we have begun our work in the US Territory of American Samoa. We are conducting surveys around the island of Tutuila which is the largest and most populated of all the islands in the Territory. Tutuila has a land area of 141.81 km2(54.75 mi2) which is just slightly smaller than Washington D.C. As the third largest island in the Samoan Archipelago (Savaii & 'Upolu in Samoa are 1 & 2 respectively) it is distinctive in the South Pacific for having a large deep natural harbor.
As one of the most protected harbors in the South Pacific, Pago Pago became a point of contention when the United States gained exclusive use in 1872. However, both the British and Germans also had political and trade interests in Pago Pago. After about a decade of mounting tensions and a serendipitous cyclone, the 3countries negotiated in 1889 where Western (Independent) Samoa was ceded to the Germans, eastern Samoa went to the Americans, and the British were happy with German renunciation of Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Niue.
In April of 1900 eastern Samoa was formally annexed by the USA. Traditional rights were protected in exchange for a military base and a coaling station; however, Samoans became US Nationals, but not US citizens. Pago Pago became instrumental during World War II as the center of the Samoan Defense Group, which was the largest of the Pacific Defense Groups. As the war moved north and west, American Samoa became a strategic backwater. In the postwar era, American Samoa's military importance declined and in 1951, the Territory was transferred to the Department of the Interior, under whose jurisdiction it remains.
Until the 1960’s, American Samoa remained almost entirely traditional. After the modernization era, the subtle and restrained US presence was over. In 1977 the first elections were held for democratically elected leadership, replacing the leadership of appointed governors.
|Pago Pago Harbor|
We’ll be working in the waters surrounding Tutuila until March 2nd when we begin our transit to Swains Island. For those of you reading from the island of Tutuila you may see us as you are out and about during this time.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
High percent coral cover and species diversity; that is what we encountered while working site TUT-09, located on the south-facing shores of Tutuila Island. It was a vibrant tapestry of texture and color; Montipora, Acropora, Pocillopora, Hydnophora, Coscinaraea, Leptastrea, Leptoria, etc; the list of coral genera was endless, and so was the number of individual colonies encrusting on the flat bottom.
The coral working-group of the Benthic Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) team specializes in gathering data that pertains to the structural demographics of the coral populations. In other words we are interested in acquiring information about the different types of corals present on the reef, their relative abundance, as well as the sizes of the different colonies. Once collected, this information is later summarized and analyzed, and is made available to local, regional, and state resource managers. Armed with this information, these managers can make informed decisions pertaining to the administration and use of natural resources around the island.
The coral working-group collects the coral demographic data along two belt-transects, 25m in length by 1m width. Today, my dive buddy Erin and I were particularly challenged in getting our work accomplished at survey site TUT-09, not only due to the high numbers of coral colonies growing on the bottom, but also because we had wave and surge action which made it difficult stay focused on one portion of the bottom at a time. Nonetheless, after a long 85 minute dive, Erin and I emerged satisfied with the work we accomplished, and were pleased to have had the opportunity to investigate such a site.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
On February 15, the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai opened its doors and gangway to the American Samoa community in Pago Pago for an open house. Members of the public were invited to tour the ship and hear about all aspects of its operations from the Bridge to the Fantail. Participants were treated to a Bridge familiarization with an explanation of the electronics and maneuvering procedures, an overview of the deck machinery and how the small boats are launched for daily operations and hands-on demonstrations of the scientific aspects of the cruise including algal identification, the morphology of coral disease, fish survey techniques, towboard operations, and ARMS and invertebrate observations via a microscope. Crew and Scientists participating included ENS David Vejar, SS Gautano Maurizio, Chief Scientist Benjamin Richards, Oceanographer Oliver Vetter, Benthic Team members Molly Timmers, Cristi Richards, and Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Towboarders Kevin Lino, Jason Helyer, and Fish Team member Paula Ayotte.
Despite the rain and President’s Day, we had a modest turn out and were excited to see members of the public interested in what we spend so much time working on. It was especially wonderful to see the curiosity on children’s faces when learning about what they probably see every weekend on the beach. One set of children were particularly surprised when shown a slightly green, calcified, crunchy and segmented example from the local beach which is actually the green alga Halimeda. This alga is one of the primary sand producers in the area and a common sight on local beaches however many people might not identify it as a plant. The Towboard demonstration was also a highlight as the team had recent video footage from Howland and Baker Islands playing. The Towboard methods allow a large area to be covered and the footage gives the viewer the sense of flying over the reef. We are always excited to show off the ship and the work that we do. We are looking forward to the next import when we can again invite members of the public aboard what we’ll be calling home for the next 2 months.
Friday, February 12, 2010
|Hurricane Rene tracks across Samoa|
During our transit this morning we experienced stiff winds in the neighborhood of 40 knots and driving rain, but the good ship Hi'ialakai rode the seas well and handled beautifully. We are currently in the lee of 'Upolu, where the wind and seas are calm and a gentle swell rolls in from the east. We will bide our time here until the storm clears and plan to arrive in Pago Pago on the morning of 2/14, Valentine's Day.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
photographs by Russell Moffitt
The Pacific Ocean supports the largest and among the oldest habitat for coral reefs, and the United States now manages the largest array of protected coral reefs in the world. Especially during the past century, coral reefs have been increasingly threatened by the activities of mankind, but now population growth, unmanaged fishing, and climate change will pose as more severe threats to coral reefs during the next century. Stony corals and coralline algae are the main life forms responsible for the biogenic growth and maintenance of reefs worldwide, yet we are only now focusing attention of the status of threats to these principal reef builders. Most reef corals consist of thin living animal tissues over a stony skeleton, and most are colonial and dependent upon single celled plants (called zooxanthellae) that live in their tissues for growth and nutrition. As such, these factors complicate efforts to define coral species and determining which are under threat and warrant special protection.
Scientific description of corals began with Linnaeus in 1758, and for most of the following century, definition of coral species relied on dead skeletons, written descriptions, and sketches. Although this approach has been successful for higher non-colonial animals such as birds, mammals and reptiles, corals altogether lack the prominent diagnostic features of these species such as eyes, noses, beaks, limbs, heads, tails, ears, faces, consistent coloration, etc. Moreover, the English language has mostly evolved in regions lacking corals, requiring Latin derived words as the basis for describing them, further confounding the understanding of the terms by which corals are separated into different species. Since 1850, photographs accompanied the published description of coral species, but virtually all of these were of the dead, cleaned skeleton of corals, with description of living tissues still relying on artistic sketches and written descriptions. As a consequence there were many more coral species described than what actually occurred in nature due to the lack of sufficient information to distinguish them.
Over the past several decades, scuba diving and guide books with colored photographs of living corals have helped many scientists learn coral species underwater where they live. Nevertheless, the colonial nature of living coral allows many to change their growth form to better adapt to differing habitats, and there are still concerns over which coral descriptions are the real species and which are “junior synonyms” of them. Over the past half century coral taxonomists have grappled over alternative means to describe individual species including numerical taxonomy of morphological features and immunoassay techniques to distinguish closely related species. However, these have met with limited success. More recently, molecular approaches that compare the DNA of different corals are showing great promise in determining which morphologically similar species have differing genomes and which corals with differing growth forms have the same genomes. As more “markers” are discovered on genes, there should be greater success in defining coral species. However, there will still need to be a strong relationship between consistent morphological-anatomical characteristics and molecular characteristics to resolve the coral species dilemma, and determine which are in greater need of protection.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Our transit from Baker Island to Pago Pago is going well and we are all looking forward to our continued operations in American Samoa.
Friday, February 5, 2010
photographs by Noah Pomeroy and Kara Osada-D'Avella
“I was sweating in my wetsuit!” “It was like diving in bathwater”… Such proclamations were common as everyone rinsed down gear after our first day of diving at Howland. Earlier that day, my fellow divers of the oceanography team, Oliver, Russell and Danny, popped up from their first dive and told me I’d be roasting in my 5mm wetsuit if I wore it on the next dive. Heeding their advice, I rolled backwards off our boat, “Steeltoe,” into the warmest water I’ve ever dived in. Learning to dive in frigid California waters while wrestling with half-inch-thick neoprene covering my body really made me appreciate being able to dive for an hour in swim trunks without so much as a chill. My SCUBA console gauge reported the water temperature at an exceptionally warm 86F (30C).
|A subsurface temperature recorder|
attached to the reef
Such warming episodes have occurred for at least the past 300 years but strong events can have serious implications for the health of coral reefs. Although we all enjoyed the comfort of diving in Howland’s exceptionally toasty water, Howland’s coral may have a different take on the elevated water temperature.
|Coral bleaching at Howland Island|
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Due to the presence of long-standing taxonomic expertise and the relative ease in sampling them, fish, corals and some macroinvertebrates have been well documented. However, this is not the case with the lesser known and cryptic marine invertebrates which compose the majority of the species that inhabit coral reefs. The difficulty in extracting these small organisms from the reef matrix has hampered broad-scale diversity investigations. Thus, methods that can successfully sample the lesser known coral reef fauna need to be developed.
|An ARMS unit attached to the reef|
|Divers intall an ARMS unit|
To date, ARMS have been deployed widely in tropical seas across the globe. Current sites include Moorea, Australia, Reunion, Brazil, Hawaii, American Samoa, the Marianas Islands, Panama, Belize, Papua New Guinea, and the U.S. Central Pacific Islands. They will soon be deployed in the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Indonesia, and the Seychelles. Data from the ARMS will be used to determine the degree to which the communities recruiting to these artificial structures are representative of the reef communities in which they are deployed. While NOAA conducts a broad suite of reef monitoring and observing techniques, the ARMS will provide insights into the components of the coral reef community that SCUBA divers cannot directly quantify.
Monday, February 1, 2010
photographs courtesy of the National Archives and US Fish & Wildlife Service
Howland Island, a low, flat, sandy bit of an island with a narrow fringing reef, positioned some 50 miles north of the equator and 1,600 miles southwest of Honolulu. Uninhabited and vegetated only by grasses, vines, and shrubs, the island provides important nesting and roosting habitat for hundreds of thousands of seabirds and shorebirds.
The American Guano Company claimed Howland in 1857 and guano mining began in 1861. Guano was mined by companies from both the US and Great Britain, and both countries claimed it as sovereign territory. All told, an estimated 85,000 to 100,000 tons of guano were removed between 1861 and 1890! Evidence of the mining remains today as large excavated basins and mounds of low-grade guano. When the guano deposits were exhausted, Howland was abandoned.
In 1937, an airfield was built in anticipation that the island might eventually be used as a stop-over for a commercial trans-Pacific air route. Most notably, Howland Island was the scheduled refueling stop for Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan on their flight between New Guinea and Hawaii. Though Earhart’s radio transmissions could be heard from Howland, Earhart and Noonan were lost en route. What exactly happened to them remains a mystery to this day.
In 1941, Howland entered World War II with a Japanese air attack on December 8, 1941, that killed two of the colonists and damaged the airfield. Two days later a Japanese submarine shelled what was left of Itascatown’s few buildings and a single bomber returned twice during the following weeks to drop more bombs on the rubble. The only two survivors of the attacks were finally evacuated at the end of January 1942. In 1943, Howland was reoccupied by the US Marines and became known as Howland Naval Air Station until May 1944. All attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944, which was probably just fine with the multitude of sea birds that come to Howland. Howland Island was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974. Visitation to the refuge is by special use permit only. As with Johnston Atoll (our previous stop) and Baker Island (our next stop), Howland Island and it’s environs are part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Marine Monument, established in 2009 by President George W. Bush.
Like at Johnston, our US Fish and Wildlife Service partners will be camping on Howland Island during our 3 days there, surveying the land while we survey the surrounding waters.