Ecosystems and Oceanography Division

Sonar instruments pole-mounted on small boats are 
        used to study the life history of opakapaka, a primary target of the Hawaii bottomfish fishery.
Sonar instruments pole-mounted on small boats are used to study the life history of opakapaka, a primary target of the Hawaii bottomfish fishery.

The Ecosystems and Oceanography Division (EOD) conducts research to advance our understanding of the structure and dynamics of Pacific basin marine ecosystems. In particular, EOD seeks to understand how marine populations change directly in response to changes in their predators and prey and indirectly as a result of broader habitat-based changes in the ocean climate, including El Niño, La Niña, and other interannual or decadal events.

EOD research covers topics on various spatial scales ranging from fine-scale habitat characterization to basin-scale oceanography, and diverse temporal scales ranging from short-term individual foraging behavior to long-term ecosystem changes and population trends. Accordingly, a variety of approaches are necessary, including collaborations with scientists in other PIFSC divisions, other government agencies, academic departments, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and foreign institutions.

EOD research is organized into three major themes:

  • Insular Habitat and Ecology research focuses on understanding the dynamics of island-associated species and processes.
  • Pelagic Habitat and Ecology research considers the ocean from the perspective of large pelagic animals.
  • Ecosystem Oceanography research identifies changes in the ocean that may affect the marine ecosystem.

EOD provides scientific advice to support improved stock assessment and fisheries management, develops indicators of ecosystem changes, and publishes scientific findings related to effects of habitat and environment on individuals, populations, ecosystems, and fisheries. To accomplish these goals, EOD conducts research at sea using a variety of platforms including deep diving submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, and SCUBA, and operates from both small and large research vessels and commercial vessels. EOD employs a broad spectrum of advanced technologies and tools, including pop-up satellite archival tags, animal-borne instruments such as CRITTERCAM, shipboard and moored echo sounders, satellite remotely sensed oceanographic and atmospheric data products, ocean circulation models, and ecosystem models.

EOD has 11 staff, including 6 federal employees and 4 JIMAR employees. Salaries and benefits made up the largest share of expenditures in the EOD budget.

The EOD Chief also serves as Principal Investigator for the NESDIS-funded Central Pacific OceanWatch Node (http://oceanwatch.pifsc.noaa.gov/) managed by a JIMAR oceanographer. This program acquires, processes, and archives a suite of satellite remotely sensed oceanographic data and data products and distributes them via the OceanWatch Live Access Server to a diverse group of users in government agencies and the private sector. OceanWatch also actively engages in science outreach activities and educational events.

Ecosystems and Oceanography Division-FY 2009
  $ %
Salaries and benefits 848,459 76.8
Grants 96,098 8.7
Contracts 2,630 0.2
Travel, transportation, charters, printing, supplies, equipment 157,610 14.3
Total $1,104,797  
CRED Personnel
Federal 6
JIMAR 4
Other 1
Total 11

Key 2009 Accomplishments

  • Completed a paper describing changes at the top of the central North Pacific pelagic ecosystem
  • Completed a paper applying an ECOPATH ecosystem model to estimate the carrying capacity of French Frigate Shoals for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal
  • Completed a paper on the growth of the deepwater coral Gerardia sp.
  • Coauthored a paper on reducing seabird bycatch in the Hawaii longline fishery
  • Coauthored two papers on aspects of climate and marine ecosystems
  • Conducted a research cruise to explore deepwater coral habitats in the main Hawaiian Islands
  • Conducted an oceanographic research cruise to study the Transition Zone Chlorophyll Front
  • Conducted collaborative research with Hawaii longline fishers to measure the depth and temperature of waters fished by commercial longline gear using temperature and depth data recorders attached to the gear.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

Noise contamination in the acoustic data collected by the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette continues to be a problem for research surveys of tunas and their forage. Due to funding limitations at the Pacific Marine Center (NOAA), the problem has yet to be resolved.

Studies of the pelagic ecosystem include acoustic
        surveys to measure the density and composition of fishes, key forage species and other organisms in the water 
        column. Scientists on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette monitor bioacoustics data collected by the ship's 
        sonars, operating at various frequencies (computer monitors, left). At the same time, they view concurrent 
        information on sea level height (right monitor), derived from sensors on a satellite, to map mesoscale eddies 
        in the survey area. Eddies influence the distribution and biomass of organisms in the water column.
Studies of the pelagic ecosystem include acoustic surveys to measure the density and composition of fishes, key forage species and other organisms in the water column. Scientists on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette monitor bioacoustics data collected by the ship's sonars, operating at various frequencies (computer monitors, left). At the same time, they view concurrent information on sea level height (right monitor), derived from sensors on a satellite, to map mesoscale eddies in the survey area. Eddies influence the distribution and biomass of organisms in the water column.

Future Focus and Direction

The rough collaboration with the Protected Species Division, EOD is continuing to collect information on the occurrence of cetaceans at various locations in the central North Pacific using passive acoustic recorders deployed on the seafloor and attached to sea gliders. The Division also continues to study changes in the subtropical gyre marine ecosystem caused by fishing and climate processes using remotely sensed oceanographic data, commercial fishery statistics, NOAA Fisheries observer data, and models of climate and ecosystem dynamics.

Direct Measurements Show Hawaiian Gold Coral Grows Much Slower Than Previously Estimated

Precious corals like the gold coral, Gerardia sp., are a valuable component of benthic ecosystems on the deep sea slopes and seamounts of the Pacific Islands Region. Formulating measures to conserve these resources requires knowledge of coral biology and population dynamics. Particularly important is an understanding of growth rate and longevity. Research published in 2002 by a University of Hawaii scientist indicated that gold coral in Hawaii grow at 1 mm per year radially (across the coral stem), consistent with a maximum life span of about 70 years. The estimate was based on counts of growth rings visible in cross sections of the coral's basal stem and assumed that each ring represented one year of growth. In 2006, other scientists published alternative estimates of radial growth for Hawaiian gold coral based on radiocarbon dating; the radiocarbon (14C) analysis indicated much slower growth, 0.015–0.045 mm per year, and a maximum life span in the range of 450–2740 years for the specimens studied. Such a discrepancy in growth rate estimates has a big impact on management strategy. Given evidence of such slow growth and extreme longevity, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council placed a 5-year moratorium on harvest of gold coral in U.S. waters of the western Pacific, extending through June 2013.

To resolve the uncertainty about growth, PIFSC scientist Frank Parrish teamed with coral specialist Brendan Roark of Texas A & M University to measure growth directly for a selected sample of gold coral colonies in the Hawaiian Archipelago. In 2007, they used Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory submersibles to locate 48 gold coral specimens that had been measured and marked during surveys 1-9 years earlier. Located across a broad area of the archipelago spanning 5 degrees of latitude, some of the corals grew on summits of seamounts and others on slopes of islands or shallow banks. During the return visit by the submersible, observers measured the height of each marked colony and repeated the measurements from different view angles to assess measurement error. Given the magnitude of measurement variability, the mean colony height growth rate of 0.23 cm per year was not statistically different from zero, but strikingly different from the corresponding estimate of 6.6 cm per year growth in colony height based on the ring count data. Radiocarbon analysis of a live gold coral specimen collected by a submersible from Cross Seamount revealed a growth rate almost identical to the rate estimated from direct measurements of the marked colonies. Given such extremely slow growth, decades would be required before growth of the marked colonies could be measured directly with enough precision to validate the radiocarbon analysis. Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence indicates that extreme caution in managing the harvest of gold coral is warranted.

The work of Parrish and Roark was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series. Reference: Parrish, F. A., and E. B. Roark (2009). Growth validation of gold coral Gerardia sp. in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser., 397: 163-172. http://dx.doi.org/10.3354/meps08299.

Gold coral colonies were measured 
            from a submersible, then remeasured 1–9 years later to determine their growth rate. Numbered concrete flower 
            pots were used to mark the location of each colony.
Gold coral colonies were measured from a submersible, then remeasured 1–9 years later to determine their growth rate. Numbered concrete flower pots were used to mark the location of each colony.
Last updated July 26 2011