Coral Reef Research Expedition to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

March 27, 2017 (updated 4/28/2017)

On March 26, scientists from PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Program embarked on a 35-day expedition aboard the NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai to conduct surveys of coral reef ecosystems at unpopulated islands in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument: Jarvis, Howland, and Baker Islands and Wake Atoll. Scientists from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program will be joined by partners from several institutions: Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology, San Diego State University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Path for this expedition. (Map: NOAA Fisheries/Tomoko Acoba)
Path for this expedition. (Map: NOAA Fisheries/Tomoko Acoba)

Recent Coral Bleaching Event

In 2015, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) staff and partners surveyed Jarvis, Howland and Baker Islands as part our triennial cycle of ecosystem monitoring surveys under the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program. Shortly after these surveys were completed, a prolonged El Niño developed, and sea surface temperatures at Jarvis, Howland and Baker rose and stayed well above the coral "Bleaching Threshold" for a nearly a year.

Time series showing the 2015-2016 El Niño warming event (red dashed box) at Jarvis Island. The red line shows the 
            "Bleaching Threshold", which is defined as 1° C above the long-term maximum monthly mean temperature. 
            (Figure: NOAA Fisheries/Jeanette Clark)
Time series showing the 2015-2016 El Niño warming event (red dashed box) at Jarvis Island. The red line shows the "Bleaching Threshold", which is defined as 1° C above the long-term maximum monthly mean temperature. (Figure: NOAA Fisheries/Jeanette Clark)

This period of abnormally high water temperatures caused severe coral bleaching, where the symbiotic algal partners that normally live within coral tissue are lost. CREP and partner scientists returned to Jarvis Island in May 2016 and found that this event had severe impacts on the reef, killing 95% of the coral. Despite the devastation, there were some signs that corals had begun the slow process of recovery. Our upcoming studies at Jarvis Island will provide the updated information needed to see how well the reef there is recovering.

In contrast, Howland and Baker Islands have not been surveyed since before the period of prolonged sea surface temperatures. NOAA staff and partners will spend their time at these islands gathering data to see if there were impacts similar to those observed at Jarvis.

Vibrant reef at Howland Island in 2015, before the period of abnormally high sea surface temperatures. Our upcoming surveys 
            will be the first chance scientists have had to evaluate potential impacts of this event. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Brett Schumacher)
Vibrant reef at Howland Island in 2015, before the period of abnormally high sea surface temperatures. Our upcoming surveys will be the first chance scientists have had to evaluate potential impacts of this event. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Brett Schumacher)

Tracking Coral Mortality and Recovery

Next year, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program staff and partners will return to Jarvis Island, Howland and Baker as part our triennial cycle of Pacific RAMP ecosystem monitoring surveys. The combination of annual ecological surveys from 2015 through 2018 will provide an unprecedented time series of the recovery process following this extreme coral mortality event. These studies will provide scientists and managers with valuable information about the ways coral reef ecosystems are impacted and (hopefully) recover in locations that are hundreds of miles from even modest-sized cities.

Studies in remote locations are especially useful scientifically, because reefs in these locations are free from locally generated stressors from humans such as land-based sources of pollution and fishing pressure. These studies therefore give us invaluable perspective on how coral reefs function with minimal human influence, and provide a basis to evaluate changes in coral reef ecosystems in areas with human populations.

A Threadfin butterflyfish and a giant clam on the reef at Wake Atoll. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Benjamin Richards)
A Threadfin butterflyfish and a giant clam on the reef at Wake Atoll. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Benjamin Richards)

Upcoming Surveys: March-April 2017

Scientists on this expedition will use a suite of standardized ecological and oceanographic surveys that are conducted as part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program of the Coral Reef Conservation Program. Under the direction of Chief Scientist Dr. Brett Schumacher, teams of scuba divers will deploy from the Hiʻialakai in five small boats.

A small boat approaches the NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai, as another boat that just returned is carefully 
            placed in its 'cradle' with a crane. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)
A small boat approaches the NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai, as another boat that just returned is carefully placed in its 'cradle' with a crane. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Scientists working on ecosystem monitoring will conduct rapid ecological assessments of reef fishes, corals, other invertebrates, and algae. Scientists will also collect data on water temperature, salinity, carbonate chemistry, and other physical characteristics of the coral reef environment with an assortment of oceanographic monitoring instruments. In addition, this mission includes studies to assess impacts of ocean acidification on rates of reef carbonate growth and coral calcification. Finally, other scientists will install and retrieve autonomous reef monitoring structures to assess the biodiversity of 'cryptic' coral reef species (small crabs, shrimp, snails, etc.) that live inside the reef framework.

Russell Reardon pounds stakes into the substrate to secure an Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS) in place. They are 
        retrieved after three years. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steve McKagan). A tiny nudibranch (Cuthona sp.) from an ARMS, perched on a ruler revealing it is less than 3 mm long. 
            (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Evan Barba)
Left - Russell Reardon pounds stakes into the substrate to secure an Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS) in place. They are retrieved after three years. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steve McKagan). Right - A tiny nudibranch (Cuthona sp.) from an ARMS, perched on a ruler revealing it is less than 3 mm long. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Evan Barba)

Data collected by the scientific staff on this expedition will add to a comprehensive set of ecological data from islands in the U.S. Pacific Ocean. With each expedition, the data set grows more robust and valuable for evaluating change through time. By integrating data on the abundance and spatial distribution of reef fishes and benthic organisms and the oceanographic environment in which they live, scientists will be able to critically evaluate potential changes in the condition and integrity of coral reef ecosystems. Most importantly, this perspective enables federal and local resource managers to make informed management decisions and serve as effective stewards of reef-associated animal and plant life throughout this remote region.

Funding and Partnerships

The research and ship time at Jarvis, Howland and Baker Islands is supported by PIFSC (NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service), Coral Reef Conservation Program (NOAA National Ocean Service), and the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research). In addition, portions of the research are supported by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and San Diego State University. The work at Wake Atoll is funded through the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Follow our research expedition on the Pan-U.S. Pacific Coral Reef Research Expedition Story Map.