Scientists on the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai Return to Remote Wake Atoll to Assess and Monitor its Coral Reefs

March 12, 2009
A large humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) at Wake. NOAA photo by B. Zgliczynski.
A large humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) at Wake. NOAA photo by B. Zgliczynski.

The NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai is engaged in a three week research cruise to Wake Atoll where staff of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and partner organizations will conduct a comprehensive set of oceanographic and ecological surveys of coral reefs at this remote Pacific island. This is the third biennial cruise to Wake as part of the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP).

The Wake Atoll expedition is being led by Ronald Hoeke, a scientist in the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) employed by the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research. He will be working with fellow scientists from CRED, San Diego State University and the University of Guam

Despite its extremely isolated location, Wake Atoll hosts a vibrant marine ecosystem. Previous RAMP cruises have documented relatively high coral cover and diversity. Among many fish species observed at Wake Atoll, researchers have noted high densities of both the humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) and Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), both of which are currently threatened or endangered in most of their Indo-Pacific range.

The research team will carry out surveys using a suite of standardized multi-disciplinary methods employed on other RAMP cruises throughout the Pacific, including the Wake studies in 2005 and 2006. These include Rapid Ecological Assessments (REA) for corals, other large invertebrates, fish and algae; towed diver surveys for large fish and habitat composition; and oceanographic studies, which include measurement of conductivity, temperature, and density of the water column (CTD casts) ; water sampling; and deployment of sea-surface temperature monitors, subsurface temperature recorders and acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCP).

Wake Atoll location map and HI0901 expected cruise track on GoogleEarth
Wake Atoll location map and HI0901 expected cruise track on GoogleEarth

Scientists will also be deploying Ecological Acoustic Recorders (EARs) to learn about changes in the presence and activity of marine mammals, fish, crustaceans and other sound-producing marine life. The instruments record sounds made by marine fauna, and by human activity (e.g., vessel noises) when researchers aren't present to record them otherwise. Starting this year, autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) will also be deployed as part of the CReefs project. ARMS are simple, standardized collecting devices designed to roughly mimic the structural complexity of reef habitats and to attract colonizing non-coral invertebrates. They allow for the identification of small, hard-to-sample, but ecologically important cryptic invertebrates. ARMS are being utilized throughout the Pacific and globally to systematically assess spatial patterns and temporal changes in biodiversity. Use of the EARS and ARMS are an exciting addition to RAMP data collection efforts.

After completing the surveys at Wake Atoll, the Hi'ialakai will travel to Guam, where the vessel and a field party of CRED scientists will continue with two more RAMP cruises, first around Guam and then in waters of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The RAMP cruises are sponsored by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program. The strategic goal of this research is to improve scientific understanding of coral reef ecosystems throughout the Pacific, and serve as the basis for improved conservation and resource management. The recent designation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (of which Wake is a part), the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument highlight the importance of the research.