Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An Island of Birds and Recovering Coral

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Overnight we steamed the 60 miles from Nikumaroro Island, to McKean, our second stop in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) survey. We aren’t staying a full day, and there won’t be time for a blue-water dive here.

“The last time we were here,” said expedition leader Greg Stone this morning, “there were lots of big, aggressive gray reef sharks.’

The scientists on this trip suited up (in wetsuits) anyway, and went out to dive on McKean Island’s reefs at 7:30 am.

Low, isolated, and treeless, McKean Island is home to bird colonies and abandoned structures that attest to its past as a guano-collection site in the 19th century. Now that PIPA exists, the boobies, terns, frigate birds and other birds who live here ‘own’ the island, protected by Kiribati. Even in this remote place, though, a large fishing boat wrecked, and there is some metal and plastic debris on the beach.

A landing party went ashore on McKean, clambering over slippery broken rocks. Tuake Teema, Director of Research for Kiribati’s Ministry of Fisheries, checked baiting stations that the government of Kiribati placed on McKean in the hope of killing the rats on the island – rats are non-native animals that cause great damage to bird colonies. They found no evidence of rats - a good sign for the birds.

So how are the corals doing?
The scientists aboard are surveying these islands to learn if corals living in little-disturbed reefs are more resilient than corals in areas of more human activity, and will recover faster after bleaching - - which occurs when the water is too warm and corals lose the internal algae, such as during an El Niño event. “We know there’s an El Niño coming,” said marine ecologist Stuart Sandin, referring to current forecasts for winter 2009-2010, “and we’re all worried about resilience.”

On September 14th, Les Kaufman had this to say about Nikumaroro Island’s reefs: “Today we worked the windward side of the Nikumororo, and this brought views of a rich buffet of busily regenerating reef corals, already with substantial (30% to 50%) living coral cover in many places.”

Dives at McKean Island revealed a little live coral, a lot of dead coral, and some new coral growing. Marine algae - possibly fertilized by the island’s guano - are growing over many areas where corals were, but reef fish are here, eating the algae and the few remaining corals. The question on everyone’s mind is: Is coral recovery beginning?

Our next stop, Kanton Island, a 24-hour steam away, will probably be a much richer coral environment -- stay tuned.

Want to read more on the Phoenix Islands Expedition?
» View the New England Aquarium blog