Coral Reef Ecosystem Division

arc-eye Hawkfish
Arc-eye Hawkfish (Paracirrhites arcatus) in American Samoa

The Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) conducts integrated, multidisciplinary ecosystem research, benthic habitat mapping, and long-term monitoring of coral reef ecosystems in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands. CRED work supports NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program. CRED collaborates with federal, state, and territorial agencies and nongovernmental organizations and conducts work in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI), the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), the Territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and the Pacific Remote Island Areas (PRIA). CRED's Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) surveys employ standardized methods to conduct ecological assessments, collect oceanographic and water quality measurements, and produce benthic habitat maps that improve understanding of spatial and temporal processes influencing the health of coral reef ecosystems throughout the region. The knowledge gained is shared with local, regional, national, and international resource managers and stakeholders to improve decision-making for the long-term conservation and management of coral reef resources. In addition, CRED conducts research and activities to directly mitigate human impacts on reef ecosystems, including assessment and removal of marine debris.

The CRED is organized into five thematic program areas:

  • The Oceanography and Water Quality Program observes and monitors key oceanographic processes, environmental parameters, and water quality conditions using: in situ observations collected from ships and small boats, surface and subsurface moored instrument arrays, and satellite-tracked drifter buoys; data from satellite-borne remote sensors; and oceanographic models. The program also develops instrumentation including Ecological Acoustic Recorders to acoustically monitor ambient biological and vessel sounds, Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) to assess invertebrate biodiversity, and Bottom Camera (BotCam) bait stations to assess relative abundance of bottomfish.
  • The Ecosystem Monitoring and Analysis Research Program conducts Rapid Ecological Assessments (REAs) and towed-diver surveys which quantitatively and qualitatively document the spatial distribution, density, species composition, size structure, and condition of corals, other macroinvertebrates, fish, and algae observed during biennial Pacific RAMP surveys. The REAs involve stationary point counts of organisms, roving diver surveys, belt transects, photoquadrats, video transects, and specimen sample collection. Towed-diver surveys using digital video or still cameras provide broad spatial coverage of benthic composition and the abundance and distribution of ecologically important fish and macroinvertebrate taxa. The research contributes to the International Census of Marine Life's Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems.
  • The Benthic Habitat Program uses multibeam echo sounders, towed cameras, autonomous underwater vehicles, and other tools to create benthic habitat maps describing the depth, character, and composition of the seafloor in and around coral reefs.
  • The Marine Debris Program, with support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, uses towed-diver and swim surveys to assess distributions and accumulations of derelict fishing gear and other marine debris in the MHI and NWHI and unmanned aerial systems to locate marine debris at sea. CRED divers manually remove marine debris from reefs and shorelines and collect data on the type, distribution and density of debris. The Program also conducts research to better understand impacts of marine debris and develop cost-effective means to locate and remove marine debris at sea.
  • The Data Management and Integration Program formats, documents, synthesizes, integrates, distributes, and archives data collected by CRED and its partners. The program implements data quality control, produces metadata compliant with NOAA's Coral Reef Information System, and enters the data into an Oracle database and/or ArcSDE geodatabase. These databases facilitate access to the data and enable spatial and temporal analyses and integration of CRED's multidisciplinary ecosystem observations.

CRED has 64 staff members, including 8 federal employees, 48 employees of the University of Hawaii's Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), and other staff. Grants—primarily to JIMAR—accounted for the largest CRED expenditures in FY 2007.

Crown-of-thorns seastart (Acanthaster planci)

Key 2007 Accomplishments

  • Completed a draft of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Report for American Samoa: 2002-2006. The report is the culmination of surveys accomplished during three American Samoa RAMP cruises in 2002, 2004, and 2006. The document is under review for publication as a PIFSC Special Report. The draft document is available at
  • The Marine Debris Program removed 34 tons of derelict fishing gear from the NWHI and 17 tons from the MHI during 2007. The Program and its partners have removed nearly 600 tons of marine debris from the NWHI since 1996.
  • Continued benthic habitat mapping with 56 sea days aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai and 23 days on the R/V AHI. About 13,500 km2 of seafloor were surveyed in the Mariana Archipelago. Significant progress was made in processing and analyzing benthic habitat mapping data around the PRIA, American Samoa, MHI, NWHI, and the Mariana Archipelago. Multibeam bathymetry and backscatter data, optical validation data, and high-resolution benthic habitat mapping products are available at
  • In collaboration with NOAA's Office of Coast Survey, CRED used the R/V AHI to conduct nautical charting surveys in Saipan, Tinian, and Rota Harbors at the request of the CNMI Port Authority and the U.S. Navy. Survey data were processed and made available for nautical charts within 90 days of the survey.
  • Led Pacific RAMP cruises on the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai to the NWHI, Wake Atoll, and the Mariana Archipelago, and conducted extensive REA surveys at each location. Cruises were accomplished in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Air Force, University of Guam, CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife, CNMI Division of Environmental Quality, CNMI Coastal Resources Management, CNMI Commonwealth Port Authority, Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), Bishop Museum, and University of Hawaii.
  • Continued monitoring of oceanographic and water quality conditions. CRED currently monitors conditions at 54 islands, atolls, and banks throughout the U.S. Pacific Islands using 33 moored surface telemetered buoys and 220 subsurface oceanographic moorings.
  • In partnership with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, CRED collected water samples at hydrothermal vent sites at Maug Islands in the CNMI to assess long-term impacts of climate change-induced ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystems.
  • In partnership with the NOAA Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory and the Hawaii DAR, CRED conducted BotCam surveys to assess the efficacy of Restricted Fishing Areas for bottomfish in the MHI.
  • Recovered ARMS from French Frigate Shoals. Samples of organisms collected by the ARMS since their deployment in 2006, including colonizing, hard-to-sample, cryptic invertebrates will support taxonomic and molecular genetics research.
  • Published eight manuscripts on scientific topics ranging from coral reef communities to oceanographic upwelling, marine debris, and fisheries. CRED scientists also contributed to several chapters in the forthcoming NOAA publication 2008 State of the Reefs Report and the National Coral Reef Institute book Coral Reefs of the U.S.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

The primary challenge for CRED is to provide timely, unbiased scientific information on coral reef ecosystems in the Pacific Islands Region as a largely grant-based activity of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program. To maintain its long-term integrated ecosystem observation network of the reef resources around the vast and remote U.S. Pacific Islands, CRED requires sustained funding of the research programs and extensive access to NOAA ships and other research vessels. The Division is also challenged to develop methods to integrate and examine the complex spatial and temporal patterns and relationships across multidisciplinary biotic and abiotic observational data sets.

Future Focus and Direction

Using the Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Report for American Samoa: 2002-2006 as a template, CRED is initiating similar reports for the Hawaiian Archipelago, Mariana Archipelago, and the PRIA to be completed over the next 2 years. CRED continues to focus on organizing Pacific-wide ecosystem observations into databases to enable data integration and support analyses required to generate the monitoring reports and other data products.

In 2008 CRED will continue to:

Coral Reef Ecosystem Division
FY 2007

Salaries and benefits856,68115.4
Travel & transportation49,5090.9
Rent, vessel charters, and communication50,1800.9
  • Lead multidisciplinary, cooperative Pacific RAMP cruises in American Samoa, the PRIA, and the Hawaiian Archipelago
  • Produce Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Reports for the Hawaiian Archipelago and Mariana Archipelago
  • Produce comprehensive, high-resolution digital maps of shallow (< 30 m deep) coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. Pacific Islands, with a focus on characterizing priority moderate-depth reef systems by 2009
  • Provide leadership of the CReefs biodiversity project
  • Integrate the Coral Reef Ecosystem Integrated Observing System with the larger Global Earth Observing System of Systems
  • Collaborate with partners to understand the impacts of climate change-induced ocean acidification on reef ecosystems
  • Make greater use of CRED's extensive data collections to improve understanding of the ecological impacts of climate change

Baseline Surveys Describe Diversity of Macroalgae in Coral Reef Ecosystems of the Mariana Archipelago

Asparagopsis taxiformis
Subtropical red algae Asparagopsis taxiformis in the Mariana Archipelago

As NOAA works to conserve marine ecosystems and assess impacts of climate change, there is a critical need to establish accurate baseline information for monitoring ecosystem status. Surveys to describe baseline conditions have been the thrust of CRED's coral reef studies in the Mariana Archipelago. Surveys conducted during 2003 and 2005 produced a comprehensive catalog of marine organisms and their habitats along the entire reach of the archipelago from Guam and Santa Rosa in the south to the northernmost islands of Maug and Uracas. In addition to quantitative data on corals, invertebrates, and fishes of these reef environments, the surveys yielded important information on macroalgae. These marine plants come in many forms and are vital components of reef ecosystems, contributing to the reef's framework, affecting sedimentation, and forming an important base of the food chain. Because they are highly responsive to changes in nutrients, grazing, and other natural and anthropogenic events, macroalgae can serve as useful bioindicators of environmental change.

CRED scientists collected and studied specimens of macroalgae at sites across the Mariana Archipelago and found 47 different genera of green, red, and brown algae. The diversity of macroalgal genera was generally higher around the larger, southern carbonate islands that provided a more heterogeneous reef habitat than the smaller volcanic islands in the northern part of the archipelago. Besides island geomorphology, factors affecting algal diversity and abundance in the archipelago include typhoon frequency and intensity, volcanic eruptions, and human activity.

Results of the macroalgae baseline studies were published in 2007 by JIMAR scientists Aline Tribollet and Peter Vroom in the journal Phycologia.