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An expedition of monument proportion
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Mission Log: June 27, 2006
Counting Fish in the New Marine National Monument

Claire Johnson
NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program

With approximately 6 days of transit to reach Kure Atoll, there was ample time to prepare for the unique experience we are about to embark on.  One of the objectives of the education team is to collect data for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) on fish species abundance and diversity.  To date, there have only been 21 surveys conducted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as compared to thousands of surveys conducted by volunteer snorkelers and divers in the main Hawaiian Islands and other locations around the world.  The data we collect on this trip will be added to the REEF online database, which can aid resource managers in making informed ecosystem-based management decisions.

Ellyn Diving
Naturalist Ellyn Tong dives deep during a reconnaissance dive at a new location on the outside of Kure's lagoon. (Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA)
The transit allows our team to brush up on our fish species identification, or for the two teachers from Florida and California, to begin the process of positively identifying the fish we will most commonly see in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.  Through slideshows, field guides, video footage and conversations, each day the educators become more proficient in fish species identification.  We are learning special things about each species; including life histories and if each species is endemic, indigenous or alien.  We will be contrasting endemism frequency in fish species between the Main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

From the data collected initially by the 21 surveys previously conducted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the most commonly seen fish in order were: saddle wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey), milletseed butterflyfish (Chaetodon miliaris) Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus), manybar goatfish (Parupeneus multifasciatus) and spectacled parrotfish (Scarus perspicillatus).  Four of these commonly seen species are also endemic to the Hawaiian Archipelago, excluding the manybar goatfish.  Having personally experienced diving many times in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California, the preliminary data (which is limited at this time) suggests that these species are similar to the species frequency of fish such as the blacksmith (Chromis punctipinnis) and senorita (Oxyjulis californica).  You will almost always see blacksmith and senorita on any dive in a kelp forest around the Channel Islands as you would find an endemic saddle wrasse on nearly every dive in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Fish Counter
Teacher Dena Deck gets familiar with the species found in the Hawaiian Archipelago. (Photo: Hans Van Tilburg/NOAA)
All gear needs to be soaked in a water/bleach solution before entering these near-pristine waters.  This will help alleviate the accidental introduction of alien algae or other nuisances that may upset the balance of the fragile coral reef ecosystem in this remote location.  These precautions aren’t taken everywhere in the country, but for an isolated location as unique as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, this strategy is imperative.  All boats, skiffs and ships need to have their hulls cleaned and ballasts emptied before they embark on a voyage to the farthest reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago.  Resource managers have learned from other’s experiences, such as the invasive zebra mussels in the Great Lakes that likely entered the lakes through ballast waters, to have strict protocols.

A giant trevally known as ulua in Hawai`i, is one of the apex predator fish commonly found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
A giant trevally known as ulua in Hawai`i, is one of the apex predator fish commonly found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA)
During a few days of diving in the lagoon of Kure Atoll, we have already seen a great diversity of species and generally I would say that the biomass here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands surpasses the biomass at the popular dive locations around the Channel Islands that I am familiar with.  This is likely due to a large population living in close proximity to the Channel Islands and the numerous fisheries that exist there.  Whereas, there are no recent nearshore fisheries in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and limited offshore fisheries to have the same impact on biomass of reef fishes.  There are many divers collecting REEF fish census data in the Channel Islands, so the new no-take marine reserves in the Channel Islands can be a nice comparison to see how the biomass of these marine protected areas increases over time and spill over into the areas that can be fished.  During one of our snorkels today, we also found what we affectionately call a fish nursery, since a large percentage of what we saw was a juvenile or young of the year.  The canopy of a healthy kelp forest off the Channel Islands offer similar protection as the nooks and crannies found in a protected and sheltered coral reef ecosystem.

There is also a nice balance of apex predators in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that isn’t really found in any other marine ecosystem in the world.  These are all reasons of why this area is so unique and should be conserved for future generations.  Our country is on its way to this type of protection with the President’s proclamation making the world’s largest marine protected area – the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.  I can only hope that this unbelievable place is kept in tact for my child and my children’s children to learn about and maybe even get a chance to experience first-hand.

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