2015 Expedition: Black reefs: an under-recognised threat to remote Pacific Island reefs

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's co-leaders Randi Rotjan and Sangeeta Mangubhai.

We have just spent two days diving McKean Island, one of the smaller islands in the Phoenix group. Around 1km in diameter, we surveyed these reefs in 2000 and 2009. I remember this reef had one of the lowest natural coral cover of all the islands, around 20% in 2000 when the reefs were near-pristine and undisturbed, with an abundance of fish and shark life around the island. The island itself also supports an important seabird colony. There are remnants of the old guano mining settlement on the island.

It has been a shock to dive and find that the reefs around McKean largely devoid of corals especially from the shallows to 15m depth. What was a flourishing reef is now covered in dark fine filamentous-like algae. The island has become what scientists are starting to refer to as ‘black reefs’. Under the water are bits of metal and anchor chain from ships that have wrecked themselves on McKean’s reefs. Our theory is that these wrecks are triggering and/or causing these black reefs to form. On the eastern side is a large wreck from some time in the last 10 years, perched high on the reef flat pushed up by waves and storm action.

The phenomenon of black reefs is still a new and we are in the early days of studying and understanding how and why they occur. We know there are wrecks have been sitting on reefs for decades and reefs have remained largely healthy around them. In fact corals are known to grow on sunken ships and can become a dive tourism attraction. But this is not the case in the Phoenix Islands.

So as scientists we are asking questions like: What is triggering these black reefs? Is this related or triggered by increase in sea surface temperatures like what the Phoenix Islands experienced in 2002/3, 2010 and now 2015? What is the process that is happening? And most importantly is it in any way reversible?

As a Pacific Islander, I am worried about abandoned shipwrecks, this emerging threat to remote Pacific Island reefs. Our countries are made up of many small islands, and our reefs are vital for our lives.

Right now, I am trying to hold onto a glimmer of hope that we did see live coral in some of the deeper waters and on one windward corner. If we can remove the shipwrecks and the scrap metal, perhaps can the reefs come back to life, though we cannot predict how long the recover process would take. These are the questions that plague me, as we head off to our last and final atoll, Nikumaroro.


2015 Expedition: Our Lasting Legacy

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Liz Drenkard.

Assisting with the sign installation on Manra was the first time I'd set foot on land since we left Apia less than two weeks prior; not exactly an eternity but I was still excited. Like many of our stops, Manra boasted palm trees, coral sand beaches and waves crashing on exposed reef; it was your typical Gilligan's/ Castaway Island and we were going on an expedition in the name of conservation!

We zodiac'ed to shore over water that was the unreal color of blue raspberry jello; Sally light-foot crabs scattered as we clambered up the rocky reef to the beach. The sand, unmarred by a single human footprint, had the serene feeling of freshly fallen snow. This place was untouched.

Debris on Manra / Photo: H. Rivera

But as we started pulling the installation equipment on shore, we noticed bits of bright color in the sand and among the shrub roots. These were not exquisite shells or rare flowers but various bits of plastic flotsam that had drifted here from far away human civilization. It didn't take long to accumulate a pile of objects: cigarette lighters, flip flops, even a DVD case. We (humanity) had managed to trash the place without even being here!

Plastic pollution is a huge problem for marine ecosystems because it takes a long time (sometimes hundreds of years) for it to break down. As a result, it sticks around and can cause all sorts of trouble for marine animals: Birds and fish that mistake plastic bits for food eventually die when the  pieces can't be broken down and accumulate in their digestive systems. Even if the organism doesn't succumb from the physical trauma of having a bunch of plastic in its gut, certain plastics can leach chemicals that may build up in the animal's tissue, making it harmful, even toxic for other animals (e.g., humans) to eat them. Animals also get tangled up in fishing lines and other trash that can cause strangulation or fatally restrict their ability to swim.

Shipwreck on McKean

Certainly there are non-plastic pollutants affecting these ecosystems: The decomposing shipwrecks have caused problems for the reefs and we found lost fishing gear on every island we visited. However, this sort of debris is episodic and generally requires a physical, human presence within the PIPA, which will be reduced, maybe even eliminated if the regulations for the marine protected area are successful. On the other hand, trash that can float long distances can come from anywhere. If it ends up in a river or on the shore, it can get swept out to sea and transported by winds and currents all over the world. There are regions of the ocean where junk forms enormous aggregates of rubbish (like the great garbage patch in the Pacific), a lot of which is made of plastic.

To be fair, plastics have revolutionized modern medicine, food distribution, technology, etc… Just think of how many items in your every day life are made of plastic. It's hard to imagine getting through a day WITHOUT plastic because it's in almost everything: our clothes, food containers, phones, computers, transportation systems. Some of these things are essential and are used for long periods of time but there are plenty of ways to cut down our consumption of plastics that we only use once before throwing them away. For instance, transporting groceries in reusable bags eliminates the need to use the disposable ones from the store. Incidentally, floating plastic bags look a lot like jellyfish, which are a food staple for animals like sea turtles.

Most of the time, the plastic from items such as water bottles, cell phones or a potato chip bag far outlive their actual work-life. It's like a person retiring after completing pre-school. So it's great when we can extend that use-life, and find ways to reuse plastic items. Recycling is another way to extend the use-life of plastics and cut down on plastic waste in the ocean. However, once a bottle goes in the blue bin, there's no guarantee it will actually get recycled. It could fall off a truck on the way to a reclamation center or a batch of plastics could get contaminated and rendered unrecyclable. Finally, some types of plastic are just too difficult to recycle because the process is so costly so its always better to prioritize reduce or reuse before recycling.

Metal debris on McKean Island

We've noticed different degrees of pollution on the various islands in PIPA. It's just limited to fishing gear on a few of the smaller islands but on the larger ones, like Nikumaroro, it was a lot more apparent. As Sangeeta expressed, reiterating Kiribati's phrasing when she addressed our guests at Kanton, PIPA is a gift to humanity. By eliminating commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands, the I-Kiribati have made an economic sacrifice so that we, the global community might have a healthier ocean. In return, we can do our part to honor and support that sacrifice by finding ways to reduce our consumption of short-use, long-lived plastics, finding ways of extending the use-life of the plastics we use and advocating for more effective recycling methods.

— Liz

Liz Drenkard, PhD studies the response of ocean dynamics, ocean biogeochemistry and living marine resources to CO2-induced climate change with implications for conservation. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University working with Dr. Enrique Curchitser and the Environmental Systems Modeling group to use high resolution ocean models to understand reef ecosystem vulnerabilities or resilience to climate variability. During this expedition, she will be collecting temperature and current profile information to validate the model we will use to study the connectivity between PIPA and other Pacific reef corals. Her graduate research, which focused on the role of nutrition
in coral calcification response to acidification and the implications for reefs in the equatorial Pacific, was conducted at WHOI under the mentorship of Drs. Anne Cohen, Dan McCorkle and Kris Karnauskas. Her outreach efforts include serving as a science liaison for the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation; In the past, she worked as an assistant aquarist at the New England Aquarium and is currently a volunteer for The Raptor Trust: a wild avian rehabilitation center in NJ.


2015 Expedition: Science team meets with Kanton community

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Yashika Nand.

On our second last evening on Kanton, the science team took time out to meet with a small caretaker community of 20 people residing on this remote atoll. As a Fijian it is always special to meet other Pacific Islanders and learn more about their culture and traditions, and life on an atoll.

An I-Kiribati woman dances on Orona Island / Photo: S. Mangubhai (2002)

As a newcomer to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, my first impressions have been one of amazement to see healthy coral communities and thriving fish populations. I have been documenting coral disease and was happy to see very little disease was present on reefs at the permanent monitoring sites. I wanted to share my findings and observations with the local I-Kiribati community on Kanton.

Now it's a party! / Photo: S. Mangubhai

A twilight dinner party brought smiling children, women and men from Kanton to the Hanse Explorer where we were eagerly waiting for them. After a brief introduction, there was exchange of gifts. We provided gifts of food, fuel and school materials, and the Kanton community gave everyone on board a stunning hand-made necklace of shells and beads. They also gave us a pig and caught us some fish for our dinner together.

Liz talking to children from Kanton / Photo: C. Cook

In a speech to the communities, chief scientist Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai expressed the science team’s heartfelt thanks for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. She spoke about how the story of the Phoenix Islands, a “gift to humanity”, is being shared all over the world, and is inspiring other countries. Tiim, the spokesman for the community who had met the 2012 science team, thanked the scientists and especially the New England Aquarium for their kind and generous support to the protected area. To show their deep gratitude, they have named their small school the New England Aquarium School.

Peter Gawne helping to install a sign on McKean Island / Photo: S. Mangubhai

Peter Gawne later said to me, “I did not realise how much the work we have been doing has touched people’s lives in such a remote part of the world. I felt incredibly proud tonight to be working for the New England Aquarium.”

— Yashika

Yashika Nand joined WCS Fiji in 2010 as a Marine Scientist. She graduated with her Post-graduate Diploma in Marine Science specializing in coral reef ecology and biology with emphasis in climate change from the University of the South Pacific in 2008. She has previously worked for the Department of Fisheries in Fiji as the lead coral researcher. Yashika manages all data from WCS’ biological monitoring program, and helps integrate this into conservation planning in Fiji. Her expertise includes coral identification, coral health assessments and the aqua


2015 Expedition: First exploration of Carondelet Seamount in PIPA

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from the expedition's chief scientist in the field Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai.

The Carondelet seamount sits in over 5000 meters of water, 65 miles southeast of Nikumaroro Atoll. Scientists from the New England Aquarium have attempted to dive this seamount three times, and each time we have been beaten back by large waves pounding on the top of the seamount. This time I made two special requests to the ocean navigation Gilbertese goddess Nei Manganibuka. Firstly, that she keep each and every diver safe while in the Phoenix Islands. And secondly, that she send us calm seas for the journey home so that we could safely dive and document the marine life on Carondelet seamount.

We all set our alarms at 6 a.m. and got up in the dark—tired and bleary-eyed. Remember, at this point we have been working 24 days straight. As the sun rose everyone was hanging off the top deck straining to find the seamount. I got my wish for calm seas, but that meant that there were no waves breaking on the seamount to let us know its actual location. Captain Jens from the Hanse Explorer had two different GPS coordinates for the site from two different maps, and neither was correct. My heart sank. This was looking for a needle in a very big haystack!

As the sun rose further, we saw a patch of pale blue about 800 meters ahead of us. Around this blue, waves were peaking, and ahead of us a school of fish starting jumping out of the water. We had found the seamount!

Descending to the seamount | Photo: Craig Cook

We dropped in on the top of the seamount, which is about 6 meters below the ocean surface, and headed straight down to 18 meters. The reefs reminded me instantly of some of the smaller islands in the Phoenix group. The coral community was dominated by massive and submassive colonies of Faviids and Porites species. Pounded by the ocean on all sides, the corals don’t grow very high, and almost hug the surface of the seamount. The diversity was not particularly high, with only 13 genera of coral recorded during our two dives. As we headed into the shallows, the coral cover decreased, though there were hundreds of small branching Acropora coral recruits scattered on the top of the seamount.

Old fishing line | Photo: Craig Cook

Professor Stuart Sandin, who did a rapid assessment of the fish diversity on Carondelet seamount, said the fish life was similar to what he has recorded on this trip throughout the Phoenix Islands group. He documented at least 150 species of fish over two dives. White tip sharks cruised around the shallows and slopes, and an aggregation of grey reef sharks kept to deeper water. However, the shark life was much lower than expected, suggesting the seamount may have experienced shark fishing sometime in its history. We found evidence of old fishing line on the seamount, strangling corals, trailing down the slopes.

As we head now back to Apia, Samoa, I cannot help think about how vulnerable remote seamounts are in the Pacific, and how much the management is lagging around these important habitats. Thanks to the efforts of the Kiribati government, the seamounts in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area are fully protected. They truly are a wonderful gift to humanity.

— Sangeeta


2015 Expedition: Crabs, Your Favorite Animals

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Rob Lasley.

Crabs aren’t just delicious, dear friends. They are the clawed gems of coral reefs, and many lil beauties have been excavated from dead coral rubble during the expedition. Roughly 7,000 species are known worldwide, but there are likely 7,000 more out there hiding, waiting to be discovered. A large proportion of the diversity occurs in the world’s largest ecoregion: the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, or the Indo West-Pacific for short. What this means, is that PIPA is loaded with crab diversity. They are colorful, diverse in form, and each has its own unique personality.

An assortment of crabs | Photo: Rob Lasley

Some of the most beautiful crabs collected during the expedition belong to the superfamily Trapezoidea. These crabs are the guardians of many species of coral, living within live coral and fending off predators such as the lethal crown-of-thorns sea star or the occasional inquisitive crab scientist. Ouch! Despite their small size, these crabs have evolved strong, sharp weaponry. Pinches can be bloody. The orange and white spotted crab, and orange and blue crab in the figure are members of this superfamily. Despite their ubiquity, the evolutionary relationships between species of trapezoidean crabs is not fully understood. Specimens collected during the expedition will help resolve the evolution of the group.

Other species, such as the coral rubble crabs in the subfamily Chlorodiellinae, will be used as models to understand how geography, ocean currents, distance, behavior, and other aspects of life history play a role marine evolution. Crabs collected will also serve as models to understand diversity and connectivity throughout the vast Indo West-Pacific. All species collected have been photographed and will be available online via the Florida Museum of Natural History website and iDigBio portal (look em up!).

Furthermore, preserved and catalogued specimens from PIPA will aid in identification, classification, conservation and numerous other scientific ventures for hundreds of years to come. In short, there is much, much more to crabs than what you might find on your plate at an all-you-can-eat crab shack in Touristville, Florida. I could go on and on about these lovely little creatures but will end with some photos of fine representatives from the trip. Go ahead, see for yourself.

— Rob