Scientists on the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai Assess and Monitor Coral Reef Ecosystems of the Main Hawaiian Islands

October 7, 2010

Scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai have embarked on a 30-day mission to study coral reef ecosystems in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). This is the fourth expedition by staff of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and partner agencies to assess and monitor reef-associated plant and animal life in this region. The scientific party includes researchers from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources (Division of Aquatic Resources), the University of Hawai'i, Cornell University, and San Diego State University.

Divers from the Hi'ialakai will conduct belt-transect surveys to assess coral 
        populations.  NOAA photo by Bernardo Vargas-Ángel
Divers from the Hi'ialakai will conduct belt-transect surveys to assess coral populations. NOAA photo by Bernardo Vargas-Ángel.

The expedition is focused on coral reef resources around the MHI, including study sites at Kauai, Ni'ihau, Lehua Rock, and Kaula Rock, Maui, Lana'i, Moloka'i, O'ahu, and the island of Hawai'i. Small boats will be deployed from the Hi'ialakai to reach study areas, including those along windward coasts and near channels between the islands.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Bernardo Vargas-Ángel, a CRED researcher employed by the University of Hawai'i Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, teams of scuba divers will conduct rapid ecological assessment (REA) surveys of reef fishes, corals, other invertebrates, and algae. These fine-scale assessments will be completed by divers surveying along 25-m transect lines. Towed-diver surveys will be conducted for larger-scale assessments. In addition, the taxonomic diversity of coral reefs will be evaluated by retrieving autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) previously placed on the seafloor.

Other scientists aboard the Hi'ialakai will collect data on water temperature, salinity, and other physical characteristics of the coral reef environment using an assortment of oceanographic sampling and monitoring instruments, including systems deployed from the ship, data telemetry moorings, underwater moored instruments, and sensors on the ship.

Manta rays near Maui Island.  NOAA photo by Jake Asher
Manta rays near Maui Island. NOAA photo by Jake Asher.

Data collected during this mission are pivotal to long-term biological and oceanographic monitoring of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago. The 2010 expedition will add to information collected during monitoring and mapping surveys conducted in 2005, 2006, and 2008. Data on the abundance and spatial distribution of reef fishes, invertebrates, corals, and algae will allow scientists to evaluate potential changes in the condition and integrity of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago and enable federal and state resource managers to more effectively conserve coral reefs ecosystems of the MHI and manage ecosystem services.

The main Hawaiian Islands expedition is a component of a biennial integrated coral reef ecosystem assessment led by CRED in about 50 U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands. The comprehensive, multi-agency research and education effort is sponsored by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), a partnership between the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Ocean Service, and other NOAA agencies with the objective of improving understanding and management of coral reef ecosystems. Data collected during the cruise also support monitoring components of the CRCP Coral Reef Ecosystem Integrated Observing System (CREIOS) in the Pacific.