NOAA scientists and research partners studying coral reef ecosystems in American Samoa and the equatorial Pacific

January 28, 2008
The coral reef at Rose Atoll, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).
The coral reef at Rose Atoll, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).
Tutuila Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).
Tutuila Island, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).

The NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai departed Honolulu on January 24, 2008 with a team of scientists for a 75-day study of Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. This expedition is a cooperative study among NOAA scientists, local agencies in American Samoa, University of Hawaii collaborators, and US Fish and Wildlife Service partners. It will focus on assessing and monitoring coral reef resources of these seldom explored areas. The study is part of the biennial monitoring in the region conducted by NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Hi'ialakai expedition will be directed by Dr. Peter Vroom (Johnston Atoll/U.S. Phoenix Islands), Dr. Rusty Brainard and Scott Ferguson (American Samoa), and Dr. Robert Schroeder (U.S. Line Islands), scientists from PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. Vroom and Schroeder are affiliated with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawaii. The research cruise supports monitoring components of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Integrated Observing System (CREIOS). The Hi'ialakai expedition is part of a comprehensive marine research and education program sponsored by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP). The CRCP is a partnership between the National Ocean Service (NOS), NMFS, and other NOAA agencies with the objective of improving the understanding and management of coral reef ecosystems.

The expedition is divided into several segments. The first research leg (22 sea days) will involve studies at Johnston Atoll and Howland and Baker Islands. The second leg (30 sea days) will cover American Samoa, and a third leg (23 sea days) will investigate waters around Jarvis Island, Palmyra Island, and Kingman Reef before the ship returns to it's home port in Honolulu.

Fish REA team conducting belt transect survey at Ofu, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).
Fish REA team conducting belt transect survey at Ofu, American Samoa (NOAA Photo by R. Schroeder).

While the Hi'ialakai is working in American Samoa waters, 2 additional sea days will be devoted to an education and outreach project for local high schools directed by staff of the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, NOS. Special guests on the American Samoa leg will be Governor Togiola Tulafono, Governor of American Samoa, and Lelei Peau, Deputy Director of the American Samoa Department of Commerce.

During each leg of the research expedition, the scientists will conduct comprehensive monitoring surveys of the shallow-water marine resources. Teams of specialists will survey and assess the status of fishes, corals, algae and marine invertebrates while SCUBA diving from small boats launched from the Hi'ialakai. Fine-scale assessments will be conducted by divers surveying along 25-meter transect lines, and larger-scale assessments will be conducted through towed-diver surveys. Oceanographers will collect data using various kinds of oceanographic monitoring equipment, including data telemetry moorings, underwater moored instruments, and sensors on the ship. As time permits, benthic habitat mapping will also be conducted using a shipboard multi-beam sonar system.

Gray reef shark in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by B. Zgliczynski).
Gray reef shark in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by B. Zgliczynski).

This is the fourth PIFSC expedition to American Samoa in recent years and the sixth to the U.S. Line and Phoenix Islands. Accordingly, it will allow the research team to revisit sites of particular interest that were identified during previous expeditions and explore new areas.

One of NOAA's high priorities is to ensure the conservation of coral reef ecosystems in U.S. waters, including the extensive coral reefs of American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaii, and U.S. remote island areas of the central and western Pacific Ocean. In each area, NOAA is partnering with other government offices and academic affiliates to conduct scientific studies of coral reef organisms, their habitat, and the oceanographic and other factors affecting coral reef ecosystem health.