SEA 2014: Reflections at landfall (August 10)

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is nearing completion. 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.

August 10, 2014

We made landfall with the first light this morning, the tall green peaks of Tutuila emerging from the early morning light. After the flat coral atolls of PIPA, this lush verdant island cuts a very different figure. So do all the houses, cars, the many sizes of fishing vessels in the harbor, and the loud yellow McDonalds on the town waterfront. Ahead of us here are final project presentations and goodbyes, the crew of this amazing voyage will disembark on Monday morning. The last day’s talk has been full of
reminiscing, sharing of highlights and special memories. I’ve been thinking back to the last island we visited.

Back on Nikumaroro, I had the opportunity to walk around the entire island. At times the beaches seem endless, with tall columns of hundreds of frigatebirds soaring in thermals serving as mileposts. It is difficult to choose where to look, at the brilliant white surf breaking over the reef, at the schools of fish or a passing moray eel in the crystal clear knee deep water of the back reef, or toward the island where Black Noddies, Red-Footed Boobies and White Terns nest among the emerald foliage of the trees.

Remains of a fish aggregating device (FAD) on a beach in Nikumaroro

It is impossible, though, to ignore the refuse of the war of attrition currently being waged against the Pacific tunas. Fish Aggregating Devices, bamboo rafts lashed together with long veils of trawl nets and radio locator buoys, litter the beaches. FADs are launched into the Pacific by their tens of thousands, and as their name suggests they act as a point of interest to passing schools of fish that quite literally aggregate under them, and so provide an easier target for the purse seiners to fish around. Many of them are lost and end up all over these islands and reefs.

Pago Pago is the home of two tuna canneries and the American purse seine fleet in the South Pacific; Charlie the Tuna has a statue by the main road passing the canneries. Perhaps this harbor is fitting place to end our PIPA experience. In many ways it is a good representation of the troubled relationship we in the western world have forged with the Pacific Ocean over the past three hundred years.

The homeport of our fine ship, the Robert C. Seamans, is Woods Hole. It was only some two short decades after Wallis, Cook and Bougainville first sailed through these islands in the 1770s. Shortly thereafter, the first whaling fleets of New England followed them to the riches offered by the waters of the Equatorial Pacific. Sailing out of Woods Hole, Nantucket, New Bedford, the wealth of those voyages, some lasting two years and more, went to build many fine historic homes across Southern New England. When the whale populations collapsed and Pennsylvania crude replaced whale oil,
the accumulated wealth started the textile industry in New Bedford and other coastal towns and in a way still shapes many of these places.

What was left in the Pacific? It took only 50 years to reduce the whale populations to a small fraction of what they once were. They have yet to rebound. The natural wealth of the ocean translocated half a world away, monetized for the benefit of distant economic actors. This pattern still characterizes our relationship with this great ocean, today the various tuna species playing the part of the whales.

The Pacific Islanders — the I-Kiribati, the Samoans, and the Tahitians — forged a different relationship with their ocean. With the ocean providing sustenance in a far more immediate way, these island cultures developed early practices of conservation and stewardship of their reefs, coasts and lagoons. Living by the edge of the sea, I suppose it is just natural you develop a different relationship with it than the one that comes from a can opener, a jar of mayo and some bread with a tuna sandwich as a goal.  It
is within our power to catch the last fish of nearly all the tuna species.

Clearly, we need a different ocean ethic to guide us to a different outcome.

In late June by President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, declared PIPA closed for all commercial fishing beginning January 1st 2015.  By this remarkable act, the tiny nation of Kiribati will have created one of the largest no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the world. Now, this may sound as an abstraction, a concept somewhat difficult to get a practical handle on. If you feel that way, you are not alone. We are still trying to understand the conservation value of these large MPAs, but their true worth transcends the immediate benefit they will provide to the local ecosystems. They become focal points for conservation, places more people will visit, places of which stories are told, places that give a face to the great environmental problems facing our ocean. Places you can Google. They also become focal points for research and help inform the conversation about what we should do in the Pacific Ocean and worldwide. It has been a real privilege for us to help this process along.

Hyperiid Amphipods, found in their thousands at the Mad Hatter Seamount

On the night of August 1, near a seamount we called the Mad Hatter (3˚26’S by 174˚ 43’W), our zooplankton tows produced something remarkable. As usual, we began the night station at 9:30pm by first deploying the rosette water sampler. By 11pm the MOCNESS, our big plankton sampler with
five nets programmed to close at different depths, was descending through the water. To the drone of the hydrowinch and in the light of the early waxing moon, we settled to the long, 3 1/2-hour tow. We recovered the MOCNESS in the wee hours, and the first cursory look at the catch under the dimmed lights of the wet lab looked to be similar to earlier stations. It was the surface Neuston net that produced the big surprise: by far the largest sample, more than three pints and almost a hundred times larger
than an average haul!  Even just as remarkable, the zooplankton we caught consisted exclusively of hundreds of thousands of just one species of an Amphipod, a type of planktonic crustacean.

Why this superabundance? Why at this place? What animals are eating them and benefitting from this largesse? Is this a feature of this one seamount ecosystem or just a big patch floating by? This is just one of the many questions this voyage has produced and there are many others. The observations we have made in the past six weeks will provide the foundation on which subsequent oceanographic expeditions will build. For our part, the Seamans will be back in PIPA in 2015 to continue the work we started.

Jan Witting,
Chief Scientist
At anchor, Pago Pago Harbor
Island of Tutuila, American Samoa

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