Scientists returning from an expedition to the world’s most isolated coral reefs in the central Pacific are cautiously optimistic that the Phoenix Islands reef ecosystem can recover from a devastating coral bleaching event there recently. The preliminary observations about the quickness and breadth of the recovery are significant in that the Phoenix Islands are so remote that they suffer from fewer human-caused impacts. The Phoenix Islands, located about half-way between Hawaii and Fiji, are part of the island nation of Kiribati and are at the center of the largest marine protected area in the world.
Despite the archipelago’s remoteness, scientists and other expedition members have frankly and often poignantly shared their observations about the recovery of the reefs in daily entries in a blog on the New England Aquarium website at: www.neaq.org/pipablog.
Expedition leader Dr. Greg Stone who represents both the Aquarium and Conservation International, wrote on the expedition’s blog, “We are especially interested to see how global warming is impacting the coral reefs. Global warming is one threat that PIPA (Phoenix Islands Protected Area) cannot control locally. The warming oceans can kill reefs from what is called ‘coral bleaching,’ a condition where the symbiotic algae, which gives coral its color, that live in the coral tissue dies and eventually kills the coral itself giving it a white-bleached look.”
Dr. David Obura of CORDIO East Africa and the expedition’s chief coral reef scientist wrote, “The 10 days of surveys in the Phoenix Islands were a whirlwind of observations, emotions and reactions to what we saw, trying to understand the message from the reefs. The best part of the story was that the reefs were clearly recovering from the massive bleaching impacts 6 years ago and looking better than in 2005.”
The results were mixed as New England Aquarium coral reef research scientist Randi Rotjan blogged early in the expedition, “On this trip, we’re documenting some of the recovery (or lack thereof) in different place on the reef, on different islands. Yesterday, we saw some rubble reefs with very little coral, and I was struggling to maintain optimism about the fate of the world’s oceans. Today, we saw stunning reefs - covered in live coral teeming with fish, swimming with turtles and manta rays and sharks. What a difference!”
Veteran coral reef biologist Les Kaufman of Boston University and Conservation International added in a later entry, “The scenes and situations differ on every island that we have visited in the Phoenix group, but the abundance of fishes and regenerating coral have been the persistent themes.”
One local effect that had dramatic effects on coral reef survival and recovery was the presence of shipwrecks on two of the islands. There were almost no live corals downstream of the wrecks where iron leaching and other pollution would naturally travel.
Globally traveled National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry observed, “Many of the coral reef habitats that I have dived on have undergone bleaching events in recent years and are now just beginning to show signs of new life. It is actually a testimony to the overall good health of these reefs prior to the bleaching that they are able to rebound at all. So in terms of the future, these places should continue to recover and return to their once lush state.”
Obura summarized, “Overall, coral cover was almost halfway back to where it was before the bleaching, which is a phenomenal speed of recovery in six short years. This was an incredible affirmation of the expectation we have in the science and conservation communities that ecosystems that are not suffering from a range of different threats have a much greater ability to recover from any one. In this case, the lack of local human impacts has made the Phoenix Islands reefs able to recover faster from a global change impact than most of the reefs that I study anywhere else in the world.”
Kaufman optimistically said, “This is the first time I’ve felt with full conviction, that the reduction of human coastal impacts could significantly help the ocean to heal itself.”
This news is the second of three international stories about the Phoenix Islands in a week. On Wednesday, the governments of Kiribati and the United States announced the development of a “sister site” relationship between PIPA and an adjacent American marine protected area that extends from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Combined, the two ocean reserves cover 300,000 square miles and account for 25% of the world’s marine protected areas. Next week, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (www.phoenixislands.org) will undergo a crucial evaluation in its nomination to become a World Heritage Site.
Coral reefs make up a very small but highly visible and important part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Other habitats include vast areas of open ocean and seamounts, which include some very large and important tuna stocks. Those offshore environments have not been as noticeably impacted by climate change yet. Dr. Stone used a remotely operated vehicle to do biological surveys in deeper offshore waters not accessible to SCUBA divers. Dr. Larry Madin, the Director of Research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts also did the first survey for pelagic invertebrates.
The expedition lasted over three weeks and had 15 scientific and 12 crew members aboard the 110 foot steel motor vessel, the NAI’A, which is based out of Fiji. Expedition members will also produce a magazine article and film about their journey for National Geographic
Under the leadership of Dr. Stone, both the New England Aquarium and Conservation International have helped guide the development and establishment of PIPA over the past decade following a roadmap developed with the financial support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Global Conservation Fund.
The expedition was sponsored by The Oak Foundation, Conservation International's Marine Management Area Science program, the New England Aquarium, private donors, and the government of Kiribati.
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