Ecological Assessment and Analysis

The Ecosystem Monitoring and Analysis Program of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division is involved in researching the biological organisms that are key components of a coral reef ecosystem. We are a multidisciplinary team of researchers who study fish, coral, algae, and invertebrates in the remote reefs and atolls of the U.S. Pacific Islands. Our initial purpose is to document the biodiversity present in various reef habitats, as well as to identify patterns of benthic habitat use and species' interactions. During research cruises to these remote areas, teams of divers survey the reef communities in a comprehensive manner, recording species abundance, diversity, and spatial distribution simultaneously for all four of these key components of the ecosystems.

After this assessment is complete, we shift our survey strategy towards monitoring for natural or anthropogenic-induced fluctuations in the reef communities. Having baseline data on reef conditions and natural patterns of change will prepare us to monitor the effects of management policies (opening or closing of fisheries), major environmental events (such as El ñino, major bleaching events), natural disasters (crown-of-thorns outbreaks, hurricanes), and shipwrecks. These data are also used for the development of ecosystem models for the evaluation of alternative management strategies.

Our main survey methods utilize scientific diving to enable researchers to access the underwater reef habitats and survey the biota. During research cruises we conduct three kinds of dive surveys: towed-diver surveys, Rapid Ecological Assessments (REAs), and Stationary Point Counts (SPCs). Biological data from these surveys are analyzed in the context of oceanographic conditions and benthic habitat maps to help us understand coral reefs as an ecosystem.

Specific Research Objectives

  • Document baseline conditions of the health of coral reef living resources (fish, coral, algae, and invertebrates) in the U.S. Pacific Islands.
  • Refine species inventory lists of these resources for the island areas.
  • Monitor these reef resources over time to quantify possible natural or anthropogenic impacts.
  • Document natural temporal and spatial variability in the reef resource community.
  • Improve our understanding of the ecosystem linkages between and among species, trophic levels, and surrounding environmental conditions.

This coral reef assessment and monitoring work is partially funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program, a multidisciplinary partnership between the NOAA Line Offices working on coral reef issues to better understand our coral reef ecosystems.