Coral Reef Ecosystem Division

Pink anemone fish (Amphiprion perideraion) and the 
        magnificent sea anemone (Heteractis magnifica).
Pink anemone fish (Amphiprion perideraion) and the magnificent sea anemone (Heteractis magnifica).

In support of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) conducts research to support management and conservation of coral reef ecosystems in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands. CRED maintains a comprehensive, integrated observing system involving long-term ecological monitoring surveys, oceanographic surveys, and benthic habitat mapping. CRED leads the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) with collaboration by federal, state, and territorial agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academic partners. RAMP involves biennial surveys of coral reefs throughout the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI), Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), territories of Guam and American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Pacific Remote Island Areas (PRIA). Standardized methods are used enabling comparative analyses of spatial patterns and temporal variability of coral reef ecosystems at more than 50 islands and atolls. Survey sites represent diverse gradients of biogeography, environmental conditions, and human activity leading to improved understanding of the complex processes influencing the health of coral reef ecosystems. RAMP surveys provide the basis for comprehensive Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs) for each region that will support improved coral reef ecosystem management and mitigation of adverse impacts from climate change, fishing, pollution, and other stressors.

The CRED is organized into 5 programs:

  • The Oceanography and Water-quality Program monitors key oceanographic processes, environmental parameters, and water-quality conditions using (1) in situ observations collected from ships and small boats, sea-surface and subsurface moored instrument arrays, and satellite-tracked drifter buoys; (2) data from satellite-borne remote sensors; and (3) oceanographic models. The program also develops tools and instruments to improve IEAs, including ecological acoustic recorders (EARS) that monitor activities of marine biota and vessels through the sounds they produce and bottom camera (BotCam) bait stations that help assess relative abundance and composition of bottomfish stocks.
  • The Ecosystem Monitoring and Analysis Research Program uses complementary and overlapping methods to quantitatively and qualitatively document the spatial distribution, density, species composition, size structure, and condition of corals, other invertebrates, fish, and algae during biennial Pacific RAMP surveys. Site-specific Rapid Ecological Assessments involve stationary-point counts, roving diver surveys, belt transects, photoquadrats, video transects, and specimen collections to assess detailed information about individual species. Towed-diver surveys, involving diver observations and the use of digital video and still cameras, provide broad spatial coverage and information on benthic composition and the abundance and distribution of ecologically important fish and macroinvertebrate taxa. EARs are used to document biological changes over time scales shorter than those studied during biennial Pacific RAMP cruises. Autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) are used to systematically assess spatial patterns and temporal trends in indices of cryptic invertebrate biodiversity and to contribute to the international Census of Marine Life's Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems project.
  • The Benthic Habitat Mapping Program uses multibeam echo sounders, towed cameras, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), and other tools to create benthic habitat maps that describe the depth, character, and composition of the seafloor and associated biota in and around coral reefs.
  • The Marine Debris Program, with support from NOAA's Marine Debris Program, the CRCP, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument uses towed-diver, swim, and aerial surveys to assess the type, density and distribution of derelict fishing gear and other marine debris in the MHI and NWHI. CRED divers manually remove marine debris from reefs and shorelines. The program also conducts research to better understand the impacts of marine debris on marine ecosystems 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 staff and partner scientists. The program applies quality controls to the data, enters them into an Oracle database or ArcSDE geodatabase, and produces metadata compliant with NOAA's Coral Reef Information System and the PIFSC Metadata Project. The databases facilitate access to data and enable spatial and temporal analyses and integration of CRED's multidisciplinary ecosystem observations.

The CRED has 70 staff members, including 8 federal employees, 61 employees of JIMAR, and students; 8 of the JIMAR employees are graduate students pursuing doctoral or master's degrees. Grants—primarily to JIMAR—accounted for the largest CRED expenditures in FY 2009.

Coral Reef Ecosystem Division-FY 2009
  $ %
Salaries and benefits 768,257 17.8
Grants 2,038,324 47.3
Contracts 667,494 15.5
Travel, transportation, charters, printing, supplies, equipment 834,419 19.4
Total $4,308,494  
CRED Personnel
Federal 8
Other 1
Total 70

Key 2009 Accomplishments

  • Established scientific liaisons to improve communications with partners in American Samoa, Guam, the CNMI, the PRIA, the NWHI, the MHI, and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPFMC).
  • Drafted the Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Report for Mariana Archipelago: 2003–2007 and solicited reviews by partners. The report describes reef surveys during Mariana Archipelago RAMP cruises conducted in 2003, 2005, and 2007 and assessments of coral reef ecosystems in this region.
  • Removed 36.3 metric tons of derelict fishing gear from the NWHI. The Marine Debris Program and partners have removed nearly 701.8 tons of marine debris from the NWHI since 1996.
  • Created integrated, shallow (0–400 m) bathymetric maps using multibeam, LIDAR, and IKONOS imagery for 12 islands and atolls.
  • Conducted multibeam mapping of Honolulu Harbor and off shore benthic habitats in the main Hawaiian Islands to support needs of NOAA and local partners.
  • Continued collaborative mapping and interpretation of mesophotic coral ecosystems in the Au'au Channel and around Kaua'i using a towed camera.
  • Posted more than 75 new benthic habitat mapping products for the Hawaiian Archipelago, Mariana Archipelago, American Samoa, and Pacific Remote Island Areas online at
  • Led Pacific RAMP cruises on the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai to Guam, the CNMI, and Wake Atoll and participated in an annual NWHI RAMP cruise to continue long-term integrated ecosystem monitoring. Partners included the University of Guam, Guam Coastal Management Program, San Diego State University, University of Hawai'i, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
  • Monitored oceanographic conditions and water quality at 54 islands, atolls, and banks in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands with 23 moored and telemetered surface buoys and 285 subsurface oceanographic moorings. Expanded monitoring to include the Kimbe Bay Marine Protected Area as part of the Coral Triangle Initiative.
  • Collected baseline carbonate chemistry data in the Mariana Archipelago and NWHI to support studies of climate change-induced ocean acidification and its impacts on coral reef ecosystems. Partners included the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and NOAA's Coral Reef Watch program.
  • Completed 4 missions using the SeaBED AUV to develop protocols for characterizing benthic habitats and communities and surveying groundfish; the studies were a collaboration with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
  • Deployed 30 ARMS in the CNMI, 12 at Wake Atoll and Guam, and 33 in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

The primary challenge for CRED is to provide timely, unbiased scientific information on the condition of coral reef ecosystems in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands and processes affecting them. The information must be easily interpreted and presented in a manner useful to resource managers, policymakers, and other key stakeholders at local, regional, national, and international levels. To meet these challenges, CRED needs to continue long-term monitoring of reefs, integration of ecosystem observations, and studies of reef communities and processes across the Pacific Islands Region. CRED also needs to improve methods used to identify and understand complex spatial and temporal patterns and relationships in biological and environmental data. These challenges will require a sustained commitment of funding and extensive access to NOAA research vessels.

Future Focus and Direction

The bumphead parrotfish (left) 
        and the humphead wrasse are valuable members of coral reef ecosystems in the Pacific Islands Region.
The bumphead parrotfish (left) and the humphead wrasse are valuable members of coral reef ecosystems in the Pacific Islands Region.

In support of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, CRED will continue to focus on improving responsiveness to local management needs for scientific information to address impacts of climate change, fishing, land-based pollution, and other stressors. Scientific liaisons will work closely with resource managers to improve the relevance and usefulness of CRED products. CRED will continue to improve the format and content of its coral reef ecosystem monitoring reports to better meet management needs; organize Pacific-wide, integrated ecosystem observations into relational geospatial databases; and make the data publicly available. Efforts are underway to incorporate CRED's suite of integrated biological, oceanographic, and habitat observations into NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing System and the Global Ocean Observing System frameworks as a model for ecological observing systems.

CRED is extending the suite of ecosystem observations to more effectively assess, monitor, and understand the ecological impacts of climate-change driven ocean acidification, including establishing baseline observations of carbonate chemistry, calcification rates, and cryptic invertebrate biodiversity.

CRED is augmenting Pacific RAMP visual surveys and benthic habitat mapping to support the development of annual catch limits (ACLs) for coral reef fish species in the Pacific Islands Region, as mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006. Expanded research to support reef fish population assessments will involve life-history studies, increased replication of surveys around populated islands, and efforts to improve understanding of reef fish distributions in habitats and depth ranges not currently surveyed as part of the Pacific RAMP.

Specifically, in 2010 the CRED will accomplish the following objectives:

  • Lead Pacific RAMP cruises to American Samoa, the PRIA, the NWHI, and the MHI
  • Lead an exploratory fish population assessment cruise to the Mariana Archipelago using multibeam bathymetry, bottomfish BotCam and baited remote underwater video stations (BRUVS), active acoustics, and a SeaBED AUV to characterize deepwater benthic habitats and develop robust fishery-independent methods to assess bottomfish resources
  • Complete the Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Report for the Mariana Archipelago: 2003–2007
  • Continue to establish a global baseline of cryptic coral reef biodiversity using ARMS
  • Provide population estimates and fishery impact assessments for coral reef fishes in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands based on visual survey and habitat mapping data as part of collaborative work to develop annual catch ACLs for coral reef fishes
  • Explore use of remote sampling methods to increase understanding of fish distributions in depths below visual survey range
  • Continue to establish a baseline understanding of carbonate chemistry processes in Pacific island reef habitats
  • Begin to assess the ecological impacts of ocean acidification on reef ecosystems by monitoring calcification rates of corals and crustose coralline algae using coral cores and calcification plates
  • Continue development of tools to measure larval transport and recruitment in American Samoa, the Mariana Archipelago, and the Hawaiian Archipelago

Assessment of Coral Health and Disease Part of Foundation
for Monitoring Impacts of Climate Change

As NOAA faces the challenge of monitoring impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, the importance of establishing reliable baseline information about current ecosystem status is paramount. Recent surveys by PIFSC have enabled impact assessments for coral reefs of the Pacific Islands Region by documenting the current status of corals, other invertebrates, algae, fish and other ecosystem components.

An important aspect of the coral surveys is the assessment of coral disease and health across the spectrum of reef habitats in the Region, from those near human population centers to others at remote, unoccupied atolls. During 2006 and 2007, the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division conducted a comprehensive, quantitative coral disease assessment at seven largely unpopulated U.S. coral atolls and islands in the central Pacific collectively known as the Pacific Remote Island Areas (PRIA): Johnston, Palmyra, Kingman, and Wake Atolls, and Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands. Data from 80 survey sites revealed 6 broad categories of coral disease affecting 12 different genera of stony corals. The most geographically and taxonomically widespread disease was skeletal growth anomalies, detected at nearly 40% of survey sites and on six different anthozoan genera. White syndrome, or acute tissue loss, was the most prevalent disease found and afflicted several genera of stony corals, including Acropora, Montipora, Goniastrea, and Platygyra. Pigmentation response and other sublethal lesions, such as algal and cyanophyte infections, and tube-worm infestations, were seen infrequently. In general, the prevalence of coral diseases in the PRIA was low and variable across genera.

Coral disease affects the structure and dynamics of individual species and the coral community. It kills individual coral organisms or reduces their growth and fecundity. Pathogens may impede the ability of corals to compete for space and other critical resources. The susceptibility of corals to disease is influenced by temperature, acidity, and other abiotic properties of the ocean environment and is, therefore, affected by climate change. The PRIA coral disease survey data are a valuable baseline for monitoring such effects in the coming decades.

The coral disease research was directed by Bernardo Vargas-Ángel, a CRED scientist with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, and recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Bulletin of Marine Science.

In “white syndrome”, 
            lesions characterized by acute and rapid loss of tissue leave a band of white, exposed coral skeleton which is 
            then invaded by filamentous and turf algae. The disease is lethal.
In "white syndrome", lesions characterized by acute and rapid loss of tissue leave a band of white, exposed coral skeleton which is then invaded by filamentous and turf algae. The disease is lethal.
Last updated July 17 2014