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