SEA 2014: Orona and tuna

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is underway. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals, which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog.

This is a cross post from the SEA Expedition Blog.

With but a few shots of chain our anchors have been securely placed and we sit in the calm waters of the lee of Orona. Many coconut palm trees forty feet tall or more sit just off our bow hiding the long silent remains of human settlement, peering at us out from the underbrush. A few teams fought the surge through the coral barrier pocketed with underwater caves that surrounds the island to make our way to the lagoon.

Orono Island photographed on a previous expedition

While the corals of Orona are still recovering from the last bleaching event there were lots of persevering coral patches interspersed with giant clams, their neon turquoise of their lips standing out against the sand and rock. One of the tidal channels that dots the island, connecting lagoon to ocean, was dotted with the small black fins of a reef shark nursery. Dozens of the pups playfully swam around amongst schools of mullets and jacks or darting away from a few intrepid explorers chasing them with Go-Pros. And although lone concrete steps stoically mark where humans have scared the area, these
things so easily seen are not the only ones of concern nor interest.

A shark along the reef of Orona from a previous Aquarium expedition

PIPA has been a very important part of the Kiribati fishery, accounting for as much as 43% of the tuna catch taken from Kiribati waters although accounting for as little as 11% of their EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) (A fact farther ingrained by the four fishing vessels we've seen in the few days that we've been within PIPA waters. (One of which was unfortunately within the no fishing zone around Kanton (Aba-Riringa)) Despite the implicit availability of adult tuna within the area there has not been much research done into PIPA as a tuna nursery nor the possible distributions or species of larval tuna that may be present in the abundant waters.

A pair of Katsuwonus pelamis (Skipjack tuna) under the microscope.

So far we have been able to identify several different species of tuna larvae within PIPA waters using a variety of nets as well as other larvae of the same sub-order of tuna (Scombrid) which has been incredibly exciting. Hopefully we will soon have an idea about some of the species of tuna spawning in PIPA as well as relative distributions as concentrations amongst the islands, as we push onwards into deeper water and the data continues to pile up.

For now however we will enjoy the palm trees, beaches, flora, fauna, and waters of Orona. While sending out the doubtless dozens of scientific missions whilst under the calm of anchor in the endeavor to learn as much and as quickly as we can about the environment we have but a moment's insight into.

After all: "Science never sleeps."

— Michael S. Heard-Snow
Northeastern University

Facebook Comments


Post a Comment