Coral Reef Ecosystems of American Samoa and Other U.S. Pacific Islands Targeted in Cooperative NOAA Surveys

January 21, 2010

A team of scientists has embarked from Honolulu on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems at Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The expedition objective is to assess and monitor coral reef resources of these areas, many of which are seldom explored. The study is part of the biennial monitoring in the region conducted by NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii. It involves extensive cooperation among NOAA scientists and their partners, including local marine resource agencies in American Samoa, Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and San Diego State University. The survey will be undertaken by the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai under the leadership of Chief Scientists Benjamin Richards (responsible for the Johnston Atoll/U.S. Phoenix Islands studies), Rusty Brainard (the American Samoa segment), and Jamison Gove (the U.S. Line Islands), all researchers with PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. Richards and Gove are employed by the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawaii.

The expedition is divided into several segments. The Hi'ialakai will first survey reefs at Johnston Atoll and Howland and Baker Islands, then visit American Samoa, and complete the cruise with studies at Jarvis Island, Palmyra Island, and Kingman Reef before returning to its home port in Honolulu.

Gray reef sharks are part of the coral reef ecosystem in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by B. 
        Zgliczynski).
Gray reef sharks are part of the coral reef ecosystem in the U.S. Line Islands (NOAA Photo by B. Zgliczynski).

During its stay in American Samoa waters, the Hi'ialakai will devote a day to an education and outreach project for local high schools directed by staff of the NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Program.

During each segment of the research expedition, the scientists will conduct comprehensive monitoring surveys of 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.

Coral reef surveys in the Phoenix Islands have identified clown fish as part of the fish community (NOAA 
        photo by Elizabeth Keenan).
Coral reef surveys in the Phoenix Islands have identified clown fish as part of the fish community (NOAA photo by Elizabeth Keenan).

This is the fifth PIFSC expedition to American Samoa in recent years and the seventh 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.

The Hi'ialakai surveys support monitoring components of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Integrated Observing System (CREIOS) and are 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, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other NOAA agencies with the objective of improving the understanding and management of coral reef ecosystems.