NOAA scientists continue to deliver products and tools to help resource managers predict and prepare for the ongoing and destructive global coral bleaching event. In early 2015, based on data from satellites and climate models, NOAA scientists sounded the alarm that corals in the Pacific and other regions were at risk for bleaching. Months later, more warnings followed for coral reefs in much of the Northern Hemisphere, which prompted NOAA to declare the onset of the third recorded global coral bleaching event. In addition to forecasting thermal stress events and bringing them to worldwide attention through the media, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program released its strategy to reduce the impact of climate change and ocean acidification to coral reefs, as well as a list of the top 10 things resource managers can do to prepare and respond to bleaching events. Researchers also contributed to a study that projects the impacts of climate change on the world's oceans and the goods and services they provide. NOAA has identified climate change as a key global threat to coral reef ecosystems. The Coral Program works across federal agencies and with local, regional, and international partners to coordinate efforts to address the impacts of climate changes and foster more resilient coral reefs.
Florida's Biscayne Bay and Puerto Rico's Northeast Marine Corridor and Culebra Island have been named as NOAA Habitat Focus Areas—places where the agency can maximize its habitat conservation investments and management efforts to benefit marine resources and coastal communities. Biscayne Bay is threatened by harmful algal blooms, and an investigation of water quality conditions that promote these blooms is needed to reduce nutrient inputs where possible. The Northeast Marine Corridor and Culebra Island are home to a diversity of coral reef species, mangroves, seagrass beds, and other habitat types. NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program is actively working with teams across NOAA line offices and partners in Puerto Rico to develop a strategy to address the top threats to the region's unique habitats. The recognition of Biscayne Bay and the Northeast Marine Corridor and Culebra Island as Habitat Focus Areas under NOAA's Habitat Blueprint allows the agency to maximize its habitat conservation efforts in these areas. The Coral Reef Conservation Program is leading much of NOAA's efforts to support ridge-to-reef science and place-based conservation in both areas, and Puerto Rico in particular.
NOAA scientists and partners in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands developed innovative techniques to evaluate coral reef resilience. An assessment of 78 coral reef sites off Saipan, Tinian, Aguijan, and Rota revealed that Saipan, the most populated island, is home to the most resilient reef sites in the study. Sites off Rota, the most isolated island, ranked low in terms of resilience. Study findings were used to identify priority sites for six types of management actions including: conservation, land-based sources of pollution reduction, and fishery management and enforcement. The data also indicate that the presence of herbivores, coral recruitment and the exchange of coral and fish larvae between islands are key drivers of resilience. Reefs in the commonwealth experienced widespread bleaching in 2013 and 2014, but were spared during the 2015 global bleaching event. The assessment results supported by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program provide an innovative tool to help officials implement effective resilience-based management strategies. The methodology has global relevance as efforts move increasingly toward managing for resilience. The commonwealth is home to diverse coral reef ecosystems that provide residents with many goods and services. This approach to evaluating reef resilience will provide much-needed guidance on where and what type of conservation actions will ensure the commonwealth has healthy reefs in the future.
Scientists continued to collect biological, climatic, and socioeconomic data to measure changes in U.S. coral reef ecosystems as part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program. In the U.S. Pacific Islands of American Samoa and the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, NOAA scientists conducted hundreds of fish and benthic surveys and recovered and re-deployed instruments to assess impacts of ocean acidification and warming. In the Atlantic, experts gathered similar data at sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Flower Garden Banks. Social science researchers focused on the connections between coral reef ecosystems and the people, their communities and economies by completing resident surveys in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Teams established climate data collection sites in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to support modeling efforts and to identify areas of reef resilience and vulnerability. Satellite remote sensing provided data across all U.S. reef areas, filling gaps between filed sampling sites. The National Coral Reef Monitoring Program is an integrated and focused monitoring effort with partners across the U.S. and its territories. Outcomes will help managers, decision makers, and communities better understand the condition of their resources and take effective place-based conservation actions. This effort is supported by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program.
Fish traps are an economically important tool for local fishers in the U.S Virgin Islands, but they are generally considered a non-selective gear with high bycatch. Scientists and fishers cooperatively designed a more selective and efficient fish trap that reduces bycatch. NOAA and the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association partnered to conduct a series of experiments resulting in a final vent design that successfully maintained or improved catch rates while reducing capture of non-target and undersized species. This includes herbivorous species that, by grazing algae on the reef, play an important role in maintaining ecosystem balance and resilience. The unwanted fish escaped underwater before the traps were hauled to the boat, so the fishers spent less time handling unwanted fish before resetting their traps. Fishers across St. Thomas are adopting the new design and sharing results with neighboring fishing communities. This work, funded by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and others, demonstrates the effectiveness of scientists and fishers working together to come up with real-world solutions to fisheries challenges.