A team of top marine scientists is exploring what may be one of the world’s most natural marine laboratories — the coral reefs surrounding isolated Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
During this two-week expedition, the Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists will conduct a rapid ecological assessment of the coral reefs at Palmyra and will study their resilience to the threat of climate change.
The team expects to find healthy and resilient coral reefs, with one of the highest concentrations of large sharks and reef fishes in the world.
Palmyra, a Conservancy preserve and National Wildlife Refuge since 2001, is co-managed by the Hawaii Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The atoll’s waters and reefs are part of a new 13-million-acre Marine National Monument, and comprise one of the last intact, coral reef ecosystems on Earth.
Because Palmyra is uninhabited except for research station managers, it has been protected from overfishing and provides a snapshot of what a healthy coral reef should look like. Its waters are host to an inverted food web, where large sharks, jacks and snappers dominate and other reef fishes that are rare elsewhere thrive.
“Palmyra’s coral reefs are about as close to pristine as you can find anywhere in the world today,” says Eric Conklin, expedition coordinator and marine science advisor to the Conservancy’s Palmyra and Hawaii marine programs. “It also supports a higher diversity of coral reef fish and invertebrates than most other reefs in the United States.”
Rod Salm, expedition participant and director of the Conservancy’s Tropical Marine Conservation Program in the Asia Pacific Region, adds, “Because of its abundance of marine life and isolation from most human impacts, Palmyra provides a natural laboratory for studying the impact of climate change on coral reefs. At Palmyra, scientists have an area that is isolated but accessible, with great research facilities and minimal human influences. So we can focus in on what climate change is really doing to reefs.”
The result of the expedition will be a long-term monitoring program for the reefs of Palmyra to serve as a baseline for coral reef resilience in the face of climate change. The scientists will also stage the final test of a new method for counting herbivorous fishes that will be widely used throughout the Asia Pacific region.
“Most of the reefs of the world are fished, and it is very rare to see coral reefs with intact fish populations anymore, particularly with large carnivores like sharks and jacks,” says Alison Green, expedition participant and senior marine scientist for the Conservancy’s Asia Pacific Region. “Healthy fish populations are vital for coral reef health and their resilience to climate change. Palmyra provides a rare opportunity to study the impacts of climate change on reefs where there is an intact marine ecosystem.”
The coral reefs of Palmyra experienced a mass coral-bleaching event in the late 1990s. Because of the health of the coral reefs, the team expects to find that many of the affected areas are recovering.