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.
Author: Erin O'Reilly
A graveyard of white coral skeletons. Not the desired phrase to describe the underwater rainforests of coral reefs, but this is the image encountered by a dive team at Jarvis Island in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Upon resurfacing, lead coral ecologist Dr. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel shared his shock regarding the condition of the reef he witnessed. The underwater garden he experienced just a year before was obliterated. 95% of the reef was composed of the white skeletal remains of a once thriving reef.
How does a vibrant underwater zoo become a boneyard of white, lifeless coral? With rising ocean temperatures and acidity, corals are stressed and expel the algae contained in their tissues. This devastating phenomenon is known as coral bleaching. Instead of reefs being a colorful living mosaic of yellows, purples, oranges, greens, and pinks, now all that remains are their white skeletons. For corals, a colorful reef is equivalent to a healthy reef. Not only do the algae provide the unique coloring, but they also serve as a major food source for the corals. Without the algae, corals are no longer able to be the colorful underwater rainforests full of life they once were.
Corals have become the 21st century’s canary in a coal mine: a warning to humans about the dangers of climate change. Oceans absorb roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide we emit, increasing ocean temperature and acidity. Bleached coral reefs serve as the first sign of the many negative effects to come from climate change. If even remote and pristine areas are being affected by climate change, then other less protected ecosystems are surely in even worse condition.
Corals are sensitive to slight changes in ocean temperature. A mere 1˚C increase in the warmest temperature causes corals to bleach. Due to this seemingly small shift, the world’s oceans could lose their underwater rainforests and instead be left with coral graveyards. While sensitive, corals can usually survive short periods of warmer water. However, the 2015-2016 El Niño made the waters in the remote Pacific too warm, for too long. The water was 4˚C above normal for an extended period of time, which proved too much for the corals to endure. Instead a bath, the corals were now trying to survive in a jacuzzi.
The Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument serves as a living laboratory to study how climate change effects coral reefs worldwide. Since most of the islands within the Monument are uninhabited, they allow scientists like Bernardo to study the effects of climate change in an area with little direct human impact. If even these corals are bleaching, climate change is mostly likely the cause. Not only will the effects of climate change be studied, but also the ability of corals to recover from such a devastating event. Hopefully we will witness Jarvis’ transition from a coral graveyard back to the healthy underwater rainforest it once was.
Author: Kara Koenig
Friday June 17th, 6am. The girls and I were wide-awake and ready to go for our first day of work at NOAA’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center (IRC). The morning started off a bit slow, as we needed to acquire our IDs in order to gain access onto Ford Island military base, where the IRC is located. The IRC building itself is stunning; within the building there is a significant historical relevance well preserved from the WWII era. The building itself was constructed around two WWII era aircraft hangers, and is also LEED certified. The building's atrium is like a museum and certainly creates an inspirational setting to work in.
The rest of our first day involved settling into our individual office spaces, and meeting numerous NOAA employees in our division of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) including our team leads. Over the summer and continuing on into next year each group member was assigned to a specific team under PIFSC’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP). I personally am on the Ocean Acidification and Climate Change (OCC) team, and the other main teams include the Benthic, Fish, and Ecospatial Information teams. It was thrilling to finally meet these individuals in person who we have been in contact with over the phone since April!
After our first day at work, we mastered the public transit bus system home, which we now take to and from work every day. Our first weekend primarily involved unpacking and settling into our apartments, so we were ready to go for our first full week at work. Coming into our first week was slightly abnormal because most of the employees in our division were attending and/or presenting at the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) being held in downtown Honolulu, how amazing! Shannon was fortunate enough to attend the conference for three days last week, and she will go into further detail about that in the next blog. Last week we had numerous meetings with the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) to discuss all matters related to the marine national monuments they manage in the Pacific, the structure of PIRO, and the management plan that will be created for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Following our first full week, we thought it was the perfect time to finally explore the island. Shannon went up to the North Shore with some friends she knew from previous research experience who were in town for ICRS. Meanwhile, Monique, Erin, and I visited the beautiful windward beach town of Kailua! While in Kailua the girls and I hiked up to the Lanikai Pillboxes and the views were absolutely breathtaking. Having a bird’s eye view of the corals off Lanikai Beach was a site I’ll never forget.
Now almost through our second week of work, we are moving full speed ahead! The girls and I are progressing in terms of data analysis for each of our teams and have a great grasp of what our objectives are. We cannot wait to see how the summer unfolds, and look forward to working hard during the week and enjoying all of our time to the fullest on the gorgeous island of Oahu!
Author: Erin O'Reilly
Imagine diving into turquoise water and being met by an underwater rainforest, a new world. The reef is a colorful patchwork of hundreds of living corals shaped like wrinkled brains, pillars, cabbages, and antlers. Though often mistaken for rocks or plants, corals are animals that serve as the foundation for life in reef ecosystems. Scattered along the reef are giant clams with bright blue lips; large groupers; and black tip reef sharks patrolling the area. This lush underwater world is alive and well in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM). Unfortunately for many reefs around the world, this garden is a ghost of former coral reef health.
Yet despite their remote location and few direct human interactions, there is still one threat to the Pacific Remote Islands: climate change.
Warming sea surface temperatures and increasing ocean acidification affect corals around the world. However, there is uncertainty about the true level of impact caused by these stressors. To determine how climate change affects coral reefs, 16 years of data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Pacific Remote Islands will be synthesized and interpreted for the first time to create a definitive reference point for coral reef health in the PRIMNM.
This project provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the degradation of a pristine reef due to rising ocean temperatures and acidification. It is extremely rare to have a living laboratory to track the direct impacts of climate change over time. By determining the ecological status in the Monument, a reference point will be developed to measure future change. This marker will be the foundation for making management decisions for the Monument and other reefs around the world.
The outcomes of this analysis will track how important coral indicators such as temperature, coral cover, and fish population dynamics have changed over time. Additionally, ocean temperature will be projected into the future to show how climate change will affect the level of coral bleaching. When corals are bleached, they can no longer support a wide variety of biodiversity, provide shelter and food, or serve as nursery grounds for fish communities. A bleached reef indicates an unhealthy coral reef ecosystem that can no longer sustain a healthy ocean environment. This project will highlight the impact of climate change on reef health, which can be extrapolated to provide a blueprint for reef conservation worldwide.
The project team includes a group of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management Master’s candidates: Shannon Boyle, Vanessa De Anda, Kara Koenig, Erin O’Reilly and Monique Schafer; NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) team; and academic advisors Mark Buntaine and Owen Liu. The Bren graduate students recently arrived in Honolulu, HI for the summer to complete analysis in collaboration with the CREP team.