RAMP CRUISE 2009 Reef Assessment and Monitoring Cruise Begins
As September arrives it marks the end of the field season in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai prepares to make its final voyage of the year. Specialized teams of scientist will revisit numerous sites around the remote islands and atolls that stretch 1,200 miles northwest of Kaua'i to gather data on reef ecosystem health. They accomplish this task by analyzing four main groups of life that serve as indicators of overall reef health. Reef fishes, corals, seaweeds, and invertebrates all depend on one another in some way or another for survival. Therefore, abundance and diversity within each of these groups are monitored yearly to track changes that may occur over time.
These changes may be natural fluctuations related to seasonal conditions such as El or La Nina weather patterns, or effects caused by broader vectors such as global climate change. Whatever the case may be, scientist are trying to gain a better understanding of the ecosystem dynamics so wildlife managers can make informed decisions on how to best preserve the area.
A fairly new study being conducted within Monument waters is focusing on understanding the biodiversity of crustose coralline algae. Kate Cullison, project lead from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, explains that the study is important "because coralline algae is a primary calcifier on the reef. It lays a significant part of the reef structure. The farther Northwest you head, the cooler the water gets and fewer corals are found so coralline algae helps cement the coral rubble together, helping to slow the erosion of the reefs around the atolls". Cullison also notes that "biodiversity of crustose coralline algae has never been looked at before". This is important because climate change is expected to have a significant impact on various parameters of the ocean such as increased acidification, temperature, and level rise so calcareous organisms (such as corals, crabs, lobsters, snails or anything with a hard shell) could be adversely affected by such changes.
Coral health within the Monument as well as within the rest of the state is an ongoing area of concern as it serves as one of the main factors contributing to the overall health of reef ecosystems. Surveys of corals are conducted in Papahānaumokuākea "to quantify the diversity of habitats", states Jason Helyer from NOAA Fisheries Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED). "To date, two mass bleaching events have been documented in the Monument, but bleaching events are expected to become more frequent in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands" Helyer explains, "so it's important to document the reefs before it happens".
This year, the task of leading the reef fish survey team was given to Paula Ayotte, also with NOAA Fisheries CRED. Ayotte has surveyed reefs throughout the tropical Pacific and Hawai'i and notes that there are fewer species of fish in the Hawaiian archipelago. This is mainly due to the sheer remoteness of Hawai'i from other land masses, which is also the reason so many organisms, fish included, have evolved into unique species found nowhere else in the world. Due to the lack of fishing pressure in Papahānaumokuākea, top level predators such as ulua (Giant Trevally), uku (Gray Snapper), and various species of sharks are a common sight to divers and are an indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem. "The farther north you travel [in the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain], there are a lot more ulua than in the rest of the Pacific", says Ayotte. "They [ulua] are also definitely a lot more curious. It seems like they own the reef here. It's their territory and they know it, and they'll let you know it."
Another team composed of a scientist, a resource manager, and two cultural practitioners is focusing on gathering data on the relative abundance, size, and diversity of intertidal invertebrates, mainly opihi (limpets), to quantify the impact of possible overharvesting in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Christopher Bird from the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology feels that "the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide a unique opportunity to see opihi populations that have not been severely impacted by humans". His survey will also aim to confirmed that the largest species of Hawaiian opihi, locally known as Ko'ele (Cellana talcosta), is not found in Papahānaumokuākea due to a lack of suitable habitat. Gabby and Hi'ilei Kawelo, a father and daughter team helping Bird with his research, hope to bring back knowledge of their experience to help communities manage resources locally. "We'd like to make resource management palatable to local fisher people" says Hi'ilei, a Kaneohe native currently working to help restore balance to her family's ahupua'a. Like so many other families that have cultural ties to the sea, the Kawelo's have relied on the ocean for many generations as a means of sustenance. Being able to experience the bounty found within Papahānaumokuākea has helped H. Kawelo describe five distinct habitat types within Kaneohe Bay. According to H. Kawelo, the near pristine ecosystem within the Monument also serves as a "cultural health index, a way to assess the health of the resource [reefs within the Main Hawaiian Islands] from the standpoint of a cultural practitioner".