Monitoring Resilience and Recovery in the Phoenix Islands

This is blog entry posted from the field during the 2012 Phoenix Islands Marine Protected Area (PIPA) Expedition. The Phoenix Islands are an isolated island chain more than 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. They are part of the island nation of Kiribati, which partnered with the New England Aquarium and Conservation International to create PIPA in 2008. Today it is one of the world's largest marine protected areas and a UNESCO world heritage site. This voyage is part of a regular series of scientific expeditions to investigate coral health and study ecosystems and biodiversity.

This post is from expedition leader Sangeeta Mangubhai.

One of the key things I am trying to do on the expedition is to look more closely at the resilience of the Phoenix Islands. Resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to absorb shocks and regenerate after natural and human-induced disturbances.

 Dive Site: Lone Palm, Enderbury Island

For coral reefs, it is the ability of reefs to absorb recurrent disturbances, and rebuild coral communities again rather than becoming overgrown or out-competed by algae. This will be increasingly important in future as disturbances become more frequent and severe with climate change.

Several key factors are critical for maintaining coral reef resilience. They are predominantly factors that facilitate coral and fish recruitment and survival, including the availability of larvae, good water quality, and a stable, healthy rock bottom for coral large to settle on and grow.

 Sangeeta Mangubhai Dive Site: Shark Village

The IUCN Working Group on Climate Change and Coral Reefs developed new protocols for monitoring coral reef resilience. We have been using this protocol to assess coral reef resilience at each site we visit. This includes measuring coral recruitment and collecting data on coral community structure. We are also looking at the fish populations and how these have changed or persisted through the 2003 coral bleaching event

 Dive Site: Shark Village, Enderbury Island

Most coral reefs in the world have to deal with multiple stressors at once – overfishing, pollution, sedimentation, etc.. But in Phoenix Islands we get to test and learn about how a coral reef ecosystem recovers in the absence of multiple stressors. The theory being, a healthy coral reef especially with apex predators and herbivores that graze on algae, help an ecosystem to recover quickly.

Dive Site: Lone Palm, Enderbury Island

So far we are finding this is the case. The majority of the sites we have dived so far at Kanton and Enderbury have a lot of new corals come in since the bleaching, and the fish and shark populations are healthy. Some sites have even recovered to 40 to 50 percent of their former glory, following the trend from 2009 blogged by Dr. Les Kaufman. Will the Phoenix Islands continue to rise from the ashes? Only time and careful measurements will tell. 



  1. Hmmm... make me jealous..

  2. Sangeeta MangubhaiJune 25, 2012 at 1:58 AM

    Pur - wish I could have brought you too. You would have loved to have counted all the fish and sharks I saw. Salam everyone in Raja Ampat from me!