Coral reef resources are the subject of a 84-day study by NOAA scientists and their research partners in the U.S. Equatorial Pacific and American Samoa

January 15, 2006
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School of herbivorous surgeonfish at Rose Atoll, American Samoa. Photo by R. Schroeder.
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Tutuila Island, American Samoa. Photo by R. Schroeder.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Hi'ialakai departed Honolulu on January 15, 2006 with a team of scientists for an 84-day investigation of Johnston Atoll, the U.S. Phoenix Islands, the islands of American Samoa, and the U.S. Line Islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. A cooperative study among NOAA scientists, local scientists, and collaborators from various universities, this important expedition will focus on assessing and monitoring the coral reef resources of these seldom explored areas. The expedition is part of the biennial monitoring effort in the region by NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in Honolulu, Hawaii. The research will be directed by Dr. Peter Vroom (Johnston Atoll/U.S. Phoenix Islands), Dr. Robert Schroeder (American Samoa), and Scott Ferguson (U.S. Line Islands), scientists from PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division affiliated with the Joint Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawaii.

The Hi'ialakai expedition is part of a comprehensive marine research and education program carried out through 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 CRCP also facilitates partnerships between NOAA and a variety of private, scientific, governmental, and non-governmental groups at local, state, territorial, federal, and international levels to advance the program's objectives.

The expedition is divided into several segments. The first research leg (23 sea days) will cover Johnston Atoll and Howland and Baker islands. The second leg (25 sea days) will cover American Samoa, and a third leg (26 sea days) will investigate waters around Jarvis, Palmyra, and Kingman Reef before the ship returns to Honolulu. While the Hi'ialakai is working in American Samoa waters, 4 additional sea days will be devoted to an education and outreach project directed by staff of the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, National Marine Sanctuaries Program, NOS.

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

During each leg of the research expedition, the scientists will conduct comprehensive monitoring surveys of the shallow-water marine resources. Teams of specialists will assess the status of the fishes, corals, algae and marine invertebrates by using underwater survey techniques 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 by towed-diver surveys. A major component of the expedition will be the mapping of benthic habitat using multibeam sonars deployed from both the NOAA ship and the 26 ft research vessel R/V AHI (Acoustic Habitat Investigator). Additionally, teams of oceanographers will conduct underwater acoustic surveys from the ship and use various monitoring equipment to collect oceanographic data.

This is the third PIFSC expedition to American Samoa in recent years and the fifth to the U.S. Line and Phoenix Islands. Accordingly, it will offer the research team the opportunity to revisit sites of particular interest that were identified during the previous expeditions as well as explore new areas. The expedition will provide valuable data to increase our understanding of the ecological and environmental processes affecting coral reef ecosystems in U.S.-related islands across the Pacific Ocean.