Author: Shannon Boyle
The first of many project presentations came right at the halfway point of the summer at the NOAA IRC Intern Symposium. With some pre-presentation jitters, we took the stage and for the next 45 minutes talked about all that we had accomplished this summer. After the presentation, we were met with praise and congratulations from our teams about the mountains of data we had been able to analyze in such a short period of time. Although a surprising amount of work is done, the amount left to do is even more surprising. Outlining a timeline for the overview report, our primary deliverable, with a deadline of early-November definitely left us with a few bricks on our shoulders, but the prospect of having a hard copy of our report in hand by the time we graduate is the steam we need to power through.
With just under a month left in Honolulu, as we sit here toiling away with GIS and R attending endless meetings, I’ve been looking back at some highlights passed, and am looking forward to some still to come. By pure happenstance, this summer in Honolulu is framed by two events that embody our program, our goals, our project, and our future as budding environmentalists attempting to bridge science and management.
In mid-June, Honolulu held the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) where over 3000 coral-reef-minded scientists, social scientists, economists, managers, activists and the like gathered en masse to listen, learn, and lecture on all things coral reef. I got a chance to attend the last few days of the conference and immerse myself in the coral reef world. Suddenly I found myself amongst almost every superstar scientist I had ever heard of: Hugh Possingham (The Nature Conservancy, also the creator of MARXAN, the number one spatial planning program in the world), Peter Kareiva (of the Kareiva Camp), our very own Ben Halpern, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Jeremy Jackson; the list goes on and on.
The next batch of superstars is yet to come but is going to be just as memorable. To list a few: Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson, the president of Conservation International, the president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, Thomas Lovejoy, Thomas Friedman. In September, this group of luminaries along with countless others will also be gathering in Honolulu for the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC). In an appropriate conclusion to this illuminating summer, we’ll be attending the WCC as volunteers and enthusiastic conservationists.
It’s no longer enough to just state “these results are potentially important for informing fisheries management” in a peer-reviewed paper. The general anxiety about the state of the world is bringing people together as a community to push for a more interdisciplinary focus with enhanced communication between sectors and better interpretation of effective scientific findings. Interestingly enough, “Bridging Science to Management” was the theme of ICRS this year, a veritable call-to-arms to get everyone thinking about their role in the complex system of decision making. Our project is similarly titled and we hope to effectively bridge science and management in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Author: Erin O'Reilly
Inside the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument lies Palmyra Atoll. Although this ring-shaped reef is located in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from any continent, dozens of scientists flock to these warm waters. Since Palmyra is only 4.6 square miles of land, what makes this small atoll unique? Why are the scientists so enthusiastic to come to this remote Pacific island? Underneath its turquoise waters, Palmyra holds a hidden secret. In this seemingly uninhabited corner of the world, what do the waters hold that could be so enticing? The answer: sharks. Palmyra is one of the last predator-dominated marine ecosystems: a shark’s paradise, a marine ecologist’s dream, a shark scientist’s heaven.
What makes Palmyra rare? First, the human population on the atoll reaches a maximum of 20 inhabitants, all scientists. Palmyra is one of the last places on earth to study the abundance, movement, and behavior of reef sharks in a region that has not been overfished. Scientists are there to get answers to pressing questions regarding shark populations: what are sharks’ role as a top predator? How do they impact the health of the reef ecosystem? Is shark behavior influenced by human interactions?
Since scientists have witnessed fewer sharks on the reef over the years, they wonder if the sharks are responding to the increase in human activities on the atoll. Palmyra offers scientists a living laboratory to determine how sharks’ behavior responds to these conditions. Based on the results of their experiments, shark scientists worldwide will be able to more accurately estimate the number of sharks by accounting for these behavioral biases. For example, if a particular reef is a popular dive spot, sharks may begin to avoid humans, leading to an underestimation of their population size. On the other hand, if people rarely dive on a different reef, sharks may be more curious, leading to an overestimation of their population size. Accounting for sharks’ behavior will improve our understanding of the true size of shark populations, which is essential to protecting sharks headed towards extinction.
Second, the atoll has an inverted biomass pyramid, a rarity in most marine ecosystems. This means top predators make up most of the biomass for the ecosystem. Overfishing has removed sharks from most reefs, so it is unusual to have an abundance of these top predators. For comparison, in a normal biomass pyramid, the plants represent the largest biomass of the ecosystem, and the top predators represent the lowest biomass. Think of a grassland ecosystem with an abundance of grasses, a smaller amount of antelope and an even smaller amount of lions. The opposite is true in Palmyra. Instead, there are an abundance of sharks, less reef fish, and an even smaller amount of plankton: here the sharks dominate.
Even though shark populations have declined worldwide, sharks are still patrolling the reefs in Palmyra and other parts of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Since Palmyra hosts a large population of sharks, it serves as an essential place for scientists to study these top predators. If sharks are removed from the top of the food web, there are cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Therefore, sharks are essential to keeping the food web balanced and the health of the ecosystem in check.
Through research in Palmyra, scientists will be able to more accurately estimate the population sizes of sharks, which is necessary to prevent extinction, and investigate how sharks influence overall ecosystem health.