UPDATE: This just in: Dr. Yimnang Golbuu was recently awarded the prestigious Pew Fellowship in marine conservation! The three-year, $150,000 fellowship will allow Yim and PICRC to assess Palau's network of protected areas and determine how best to expand the network.
“I am honored and humbled to receive this prestigious award," Yim says. "This is really not my award. This is the result of the work of PICRC, my fellow researchers, and PICRC’s partners who collaborate to protect Palau’s marine environment. I am very happy that PICRC’s work has been recognized internationally as evidenced by the awarding of this fellowship.”
Our heartiest congratulations to Yim and the PICRC team!
In Palau’s Nikko Bay, it’s visible from the boat. Steven Victor points out what looks like a little forest of alabaster bonsai trees. It's a white patch of coral, and its ethereal beauty belies the fact that it’s actually unhealthy. Steven's pointing out bleached coral, and its presence indicates that the reefs of Palau are under pressure.
Coral bleaching has the potential to destroy the resources that have been providing Palauans with food and resources for over 3000 years. The Nature Conservancy, the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) and a network of conservation professionals have been monitoring Palau's reefs since 1998.
That's when a devastating coral bleaching event associated with El Niño severely damaged many of Palau's reefs, along with countless others around the globe. Reefs are still recovering from the damage they sustained, and the Conservancy is at the global forefront of trying to understand why some resilient reefs are more capable of bouncing back than others.
Last year, another bleaching event hit Palau. In response to this event, a team of PICRC and Conservancy scientists dramatically expanded their regular monitoring efforts to learn more about the reefs and their resilience and to gather crucial data that will inform the work undertaken by marine conservationists, here in the region as part of the Micronesia Challenge and all over the world.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” says Steven, who’s a native Palauan and regional conservation planner with the Conservancy’s Micronesia program. “But we have built a network of partner agencies and communities that have begun to implement conservation and monitoring efforts based on key reef health indicators that will allow us to measure the effectiveness of our conservation efforts.”
Work for the monitoring team begins early on a sunny Monday morning. There’s no set order for visiting sites, so the team takes advantage of the nice weather to check a particularly far-flung location called Siaes off their list.
The 45-minute ride from Koror, Palau’s capital, takes the team southwest through schools of dolphins and swirling clouds of black noddies. The boats use GPS to drop anchor at a predetermined spot, where the team’s half-dozen divers collect their air tanks and slip over the side of the boat.
First into the water is Yimnang Golbuu, PICRC’s head scientist, who has been diving at this site for years now. As a native Palauan, he understands the unique place the reefs — and the resources they provide — occupy in local life. “Without them, Palau would not be Palau,” he says.
Yim and his team descend to the reef, roughly 10 meters below, with a 50-meter-long, tape measure-like device called a transect line. After it’s pulled taut by scientists along the same stretch of reef that was last monitored, the scientists swim along the line, taking a high-resolution photograph every meter for later analysis.
After about an hour, the scientists ascend. They hadn’t seen much bleaching: positive news, but expected, since this year’s event has been milder than 1998’s.
During that event, few sites were hit as hard as Ngetngod (pronounced “Nyet node”), the team’s Tuesday destination. Today, Steven stays on the boat while the rest of the team dives. From a bulky protective case, he pulls out a sonde. French for “probe,” a sonde looks a bit like a microphone. Steven lowers it by a cord into the water, measuring the temperature and salinity at each meter. The sonde indicates the ocean temperature is 87° F. Waters here are normally 84° F.
A complex set of natural and human-influenced factors — including temperature, salinity, water turbidity, weather conditions and species composition and many more — affect a reef's vulnerability to bleaching. By cross-comparing temperatures and other data, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how some of these factors interact.
When Steven joined the Conservancy, he began to work with partners to translate and convey the scientific data being collected through these monitoring efforts to the Palauans who manage local reefs.
“Our work is dependent on partnership,” he says, gesturing to the cerulean sea, where the divers are still swimming among napoleon wrasses, black-tipped sharks and bumphead parrotfish. "Knowledge is shared, skills are developed and a wide range of organizations and community members work in concert to improve our ability to manage healthy and productive reefs."
Another monitoring trip on Thursday keeps the scientists closer to their home base. Nikko Bay lies just minutes away from PICRC's headquarters in Koror. Sheltered by Palau’s famed rock islands, these reefs are situated in waters that experience little circulation, which leads to abnormally high temperatures. White corals dot the seabed beneath the boat.
While the reefs of Nikko Bay took a hit, they’re recovering, and the data they provided researchers will be crucial to better understanding reef resilience, which will help in protecting Palau's reefs through better-designed Marine Protected Areas.
"Thanks to the network of partner agencies and communal landowners that have participated wholeheartedly in conservation and monitoring efforts," Steven says, "we're getting a more accurate picture of the health of our reefs and an improved understanding of bleaching."