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From Diving to Data: Close-up with Coral Research

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 38

Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. Unfortunately, they are declining due to manmade and natural threats. NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) is a massive, collaborative effort that was developed to collect scientifically sound, geographically comprehensive biological, climate, and socioeconomic data in U.S. coral reef areas. In this episode, we speak with Shay Viehman, a Research Ecologist with NOAA’s National Ocean Service in the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, and a contributor to the NCRMP, to learn how NOAA divers turn the data they collect from underwater missions into usable summaries that help scientists study and protect U.S. coral reef ecosystems.

SShay Viehman finishes up a survey of corals in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS)

Shay Viehman finishes up a survey of corals in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) as part of a 2018 National Coral Reef Monitoring Program biological survey. FGBNMS reefs are known for their large healthy corals, such as this enormous star coral. Photo Credit: John Embesi.


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean podcast. I’m Abby Reid.

Every time I’ve seen footage of an ocean diver descending into the depths, I’ve felt a sense of curiosity, and a little bit of awe. What’s it like to immerse yourself in the underwater world? Here at NOAA, highly trained scientists explore our waters to study and help restore marine life. What’s it like to do this kind of work?

To get a better glimpse into this world, I spoke with Shay Viehman, a Research Ecologist with NOAA’s National Ocean Service in the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. We spoke using a chat service on our laptops, so the audio may be a bit spotty at times.

Shay is based out of NOAA’s Beaufort, North Carolina, lab. When she’s not analyzing data, she’s SCUBA diving, with the goal of assessing, monitoring, and restoring coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. Atlantic region.

Shay and her colleagues are part of NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program, a massive, collaborative effort that was developed to collect scientifically sound, and geographically comprehensive biological, climate, and socioeconomic data in U.S. coral reef areas.

As Shay will describe, coral reefs are incredibly important to marine life and ecosystems, and they’re also important to our economy. However, climate change, pollution from land, and harmful fishing practices are threatening reefs.

Here’s Shay to tell you all about the work that she and her colleagues do to study and protect coral reefs.

SHAY VIEHMAN: I’m a Research Ecologist for NOAA’s National Ocean Service, and I work for the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. I do applied research to support coral reef management and conservation in the U.S. Atlantic. So, I do a wide range of science, from evaluating the status of U.S. coral reef ecosystems, to research to support coral restoration. This involves research diving on U.S. coral reefs in Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S Virgin Islands, Flower Garden Banks, and other areas.

HOST:That sounds like such a cool job. What kind of work does the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program do, and why is it important?

SHAY VIEHMAN: The National Coral Reef Monitoring Program is part of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and involves scientists from across NOAA. The goal of this program is to provide a robust picture of the status of U.S. coral reef ecosystems and the human communities that are connected with them.

So the program involves extensive monitoring of the biology of coral reefs, such as corals and fish, of climate impacts, and also socioeconomic data, or how people connect to the reefs.

Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. They provide people with food, they provide coastal communities with protection from storms, and of course there are many different recreational opportunities, diving and snorkeling and fishing, and commercial uses of the coral reefs as well, like commercial fishing.

HOST: Coral reefs are in danger. Can you tell our listeners why?

Coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea, because they have so much biodiversity. Unfortunately, coral reefs are declining from a combination of manmade and natural threats. So, we have climate stressors. High sea temperatures stress corals out and cause them to bleach and perhaps die. There are also local stressors that affect these reefs, such as poor water quality from sewage and runoff from land. Overfishing is another stressor, it disrupts the food chain of the reef system.

The area of coral reefs in the U.S. is enormous, and it’s a huge job to sample all of these coral reefs, so we work very very closely with local scientists and managers in each of these locations. We, we’ve developed strong local partnerships, and we rely on their help to work on this together.

In order to get reliable data that’s representative of the trends that we’re seeing, we sample hundreds of sites in each of these regions. So just hundreds and hundreds of dives. And on each dive we collect so many different indicators of the health and status of the coral reef.

In 2019, our surveys in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands included over 1,300 benthic dives — so, “benthic” means the study of the seafloor — and over 1,600 fish dives. And we surveyed more than 21,000 coral colonies and recorded over 350,000 fish.

HOST: Wow, [laughter] that is incredible! So you talked about some of your research diving. Can you tell me what a typical day on a research dive looks like?

SHAY VIEHMAN: Well it will differ depending on your - if you’re working on a ship offshore or on a small boat that’s near shore. So I’ll just talk about what a nearshore small boat day would look like. The research team would get up before dawn and get ready for the day. So assembling your field gear, which includes underwater paper that you’ll write on on a clipboard, and your cameras, and your dive tanks. And the team assembles and goes over the daily briefing.

We’ll load all the gear onto the boats, and it can be quite a lot of gear. We’ll do our final safety checks and depart to our field sites. Once we arrive at the dive sites a team of 2-4 divers will splash into the water from the boat and descend down to the reef.

The fish team will look around them and survey and count the number of species, the number and size of fish that swim within a predetermined width around them, and they’ll write the information down on their clipboard on the underwater paper.

The benthic team is going to survey part of the seafloor, so they’ll lay out a transect tape, which is pretty much like a flexible measuring tape, across the reef to define a fixed area to survey. They’ll count the number of corals and the species and the size within this area, determine how much of the coral head is considered alive or dead, and whether the coral shows any coral bleaching, which is a sign of climate stress or coral disease.

The other surveyor on the benthic team measures how much of the reef is covered by corals and algae, or sponges, or sea fans, and other organisms. How much of the, the reef is rock, and how much is sand. The dive teams will also take many different pictures of the reef and seafloor, and while they’re diving, divers have to be very careful to not touch or break the corals.

HOST: So, how long do these surveys usually take?

Surveys are usually wrapped up in less than half an hour, and the dive team ascends to the surface of the water, then everyone loads their gear back onto the boat and then we navigate to the next site.

As we transit between one site and the next we’ll disinfect our field gear to avoid any potential for transmitting any pathogens from one site to the next. And this is really important between sites and also at the end of the day to just disinfect everything. So we’ll continue surveying sites and transiting to the next site for as long as we can during daylight hours, and at the end of the day, the boats will head back to the dock, rinse and disinfect the field gear, collect and organize the data sheets, get the tanks filled for the next day, and start entering data into the computer databases and get ready to do it all again the next day.

HOST: Wow, what a long day. But interesting, I’m sure it’s really fascinating.

SHAY VIEHMAN: It is so fascinating. Every site underwater is just so different.

HOST: Being a NOAA diver and scientist sounds like a really fun, even adventurous job. Do you have an interesting story that you can share with our listeners about a time that you were on a NOAA dive?

SHAY VIEHMAN: There are so many and every one is so different. One of the most memorable is when we did coral reef assessments and restoration after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. These hurricanes were categories 4 and 5, major hurricanes, and they just devastated some areas in the Caribbean and in the Florida Keys.

It was astounding when we were underwater to see how so many large branching corals, which are called elkhorn corals because that’s what they look like, and so many big star corals, some literally as big as a car, around the Archipelago of Puerto Rico, where it had been broken into pieces by the wave energy of these major hurricanes. And to see these giant coral colonies broken up by the sheer power of the waves was, was really, um, was really unbelievable.

One thing that, one of the benefits that coral reefs provide to coastal communities that’s, it’s that they help to break waves. So essentially they’re doing their jobs with the hurricanes to provide some degree of protection to reduce waves and flooding to the shoreline and coastal infrastructure like beaches and houses and hotels and other buildings.

Unfortunately, the Caribbean coral species that provide the most coral protection, such as the elkhorn coral and the lopestar coral, are continuing to decline, to the point that they’re now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

After we did these coral assessments, after these hurricanes, we identified areas that corals were broken up so that the fragments and the pieces could be reattached and stabilized back onto the reef so that they could continue to grow and provide protection again in the future, rather than just to roll around on the seafloor like tumbleweeds until they die.

HOST: So you’re really experiencing a wide range of, of emotions when you’re going out doing these dives, so much joy but also probably a lot of — I don’t know if sorrow’s the right word — overwhelming feelings just seeing what, what happens to these reefs that you care about so much.

SHAY VIEHMAN: Absolutely.

HOST: Wow. So professionally speaking, what do you do when you’re not diving?

SHAY VIEHMAN: Well we want the outcomes from our dives and our science to help conserve and restore coral reefs, so this means we have to turn numbers that people write down on clipboards, or, or sit in front of their computers, into usable summaries of the status of the reefs.

We collaborate with an amazing group of scientists and coral reef managers. We’re also always planning for the next field mission or project. So, for example, we’ll be doing the math behind how we plan the survey design to sample most efficiently. We’ll archive all of the data to make it fully publicly accessible. We’ll train the survey teams in the field methodology to ensure consistency between geographies and years to make sure we’re getting good data.

We’re also working on how we improve our understanding of coral reefs.

HOST: That’s very different from going down and diving among these beautiful, beautiful coral reefs, but also very important. What advice would you give to listeners who are interested in becoming a Research Ecologist, or pursuing a career path that’s similar to yours?

SHAY VIEHMAN: There are so many different ways to help how people and the environment work together, because these have to co-exist. So think creatively in how you’re going to look for ways to help. There are so many resources out there. Don’t let “no” stop you. Keep trying. There are just so many different pathways out there. And I would recommend for students to develop solid skills in writing, and math, and communications. And to be open to trying new opportunities. I had no idea that this is where my career path would take me, and it’s just really been a wonderful experience. So keep trying.

HOST: That’s good advice. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?

SHAY VIEHMAN: I would recommend that people experience coral reefs. See how amazing they are for yourself, right? If you can go in person and see them, that’s amazing. If you can watch a, a show about them on TV, that’s super too. And there’s so much information on the internet as well.

They’re just unbelievable, and we need to take care of them, because once they’re broken they’re not easily fixed. There are many little things we can do that are easy, like not littering and not touching corals, but we really have other big challenges that are tougher, like climate change, and we can’t ignore this, and we need to do our part.

HOST: Well thanks Shay, it’s been fascinating to, to listen to you talk, and hear about the incredible work that you and your colleagues are doing. So thank you so much.

SHAY VIEHMAN: You’re so welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.

HOST: To learn more about U.S coral reefs and what NOAA is doing to study, restore, and protect them, visit oceanservice.noaa.gov. Thanks for listening.