Scientists on NOAA Research Vessel Study Biodiversity of Marine Life at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

October 8, 2006

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette has departed her berth in Snug Harbor, Honolulu, on an expedition to French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Scientists on the research vessel will collect, identify, and study the smaller and understudied plants and animals that make up the complex biological community of this remote coral reef environment.

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Expedition scientists next to the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

The Sette research cruise is jointly coordinated by NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and it is part of the multi-agency Census of Coral Reefs (CReefs), one of the many components of the global Census of Marine Life (CoML).

Chief Scientist Rusty Brainard of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division is leading an expedition team that includes scientific divers and world renowned taxonomic experts of invertebrates, algae, and microbial species of coral reef ecosystems. The team also includes education and outreach staff and database specialists.

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A colorful sea slug, Chromodoris kuniei ransoni, from the Pacific Ocean (credit: Gustav Paulay, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida)

The level of taxonomic expertise being focused on French Frigate Shoals is unprecedented in the region. While PIFSC has led several reef assessment and monitoring surveys throughout the NWHI, those surveys were directed towards the larger and better known species of fish, corals, macroalgae and macroinvertebrates (e.g., lobsters, large crabs, and sea urchins). The current Sette expedition is unique in that it is concentrating primarily on the smaller, more cryptic invertebrates (such as tiny crabs, mollusks, sea slugs, worms, and more), algae, and microbes occupying a variety of habitats at French Frigate Shoals. Although these smaller organisms aren't as familiar to most of us as the charismatic Hawaiian monk seal, green sea turtle, and colorful aquarium fish we usually associate with the coral reef, they are endlessly fascinating when viewed under the microscope and form the complex tapestry that supports the existence of the larger animals. Moreover, changes in the abundance or diversity of the smaller organisms are often the first indicators of changes in the ocean environment. These organisms are the least understood parts of the biological community, and in fact the expedition is likely to discover species never before recorded in the NWHI, or anywhere else.

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A jeweled anemone crab, Dardanus gemmatus, collected at French Frigate Shoals in a baited trap at a depth of 750 feet.

CoML is a ten-year, global initiative involving scientists in more than 70 nations to assess the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the world's oceans and explain how these conditions change over time. The principal aim of CoML is to establish a comprehensive base of information on marine life that will support ecosystem-based management of human activities affecting the ocean and improve our capacity to predict and understand marine ecosystem change. The scientific expedition to French Frigate Shoals is part of the CReefs initiative, one of 17 topical research areas within CoML. The French Frigate Shoals studies will provide needed baseline information and foster understanding of coral reef ecosystems globally.

French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the newly created Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, is one of the healthiest and least disturbed coral atolls in the world. The Sette expedition is jointly supported by the Monument's three co-trustee agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii, and NOAA. Other scientific support on the cruise is provided by the Bishop Museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the National Park Service, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Federal University of Ceara (Brazil), University of Puerto Rico, the National Park Service, National Geographic, NOS National Marine Sanctuaries, and NOAA Diving Center. Scientists with the CoML International Census of Marine Microbes are also involved.