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Exploring Hawaii's Coral Reefs

Diving Deeper: Episode 64

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument deputy superintendent Randy Kosaki diving on a coral reef

Dive In!

Randy Kosaki, deputy superintendent for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (pictured here) and Jon Martinez, research coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary joined us to explore Hawaii's coral reefs.


HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper! I’m your host, Kate Nielsen. Today, we’ll dive into Hawaii’s coral reefs. Here to join us today, by phone, are Randy Kosaki, the deputy superintendent for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Jon Martinez, the research coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Jon and Randy, welcome to our show!

RANDY KOSAKI: Thank you Kate.

JON MARTINEZ: Thanks for having us!

HOST: First, I’d like to ask you both to describe for us these amazing places that you work in. And Randy, I’ll start with you to help us kick it off.

RANDY KOSAKI: Sure. Well, Papahānaumokuākea is a very large marine protected area that encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and that’s the northern two-thirds of the Hawaiian archipelago. If you look at a map of Hawaii, most often they just show the eight main populated islands, but the Hawaiian archipelago is actually 1,500 miles long and 1,200 miles of that archipelago constitutes Papahānaumokuākea, so it’s one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, it’s one of the largest conservation projects under U.S. flag, and it represents some of the most pristine coral reefs anywhere on Earth.

HOST: Thank you. Jon?

JON MARTINEZ: Yeah, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary consists of about six Hawaiian Islands at the southeastern portion of the Hawaiian archipelago. These waters include some of the best developed coral reefs in the southeastern Hawaiian Islands. The sanctuary was established to protect humpback whales and their habitat in 1992 with the mandate to continually evaluate the needs for additional protections for other species. Our sanctuary is currently in a management plan review process where we’re proposing to enhance protections, research, and education for the entire ecosystem within the sanctuary.

HOST: How would you say these two sites are different?

RANDY KOSAKI: Both of these sites are in the Hawaiian archipelago and as one contiguous archipelago, the biggest difference is the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is in the populated portion of the archipelago, so there’s been a thousand years of human activities and fishing and anthropogenic disturbances in the main Hawaiian Islands whereas Papahānaumokuākea is in the uninhabited two-thirds of the archipelago and so it’s relatively pristine, undisturbed and in many ways, it kind of represents a window back in time to see what a completely pristine, undisturbed Hawaiian reef should look like.

And there’s significant differences in terms of fish abundance and fish size and coral health between the Main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, so it really kind of underscores the value of some conservation areas and also shows the impact from a thousand years of human activities and fishing on the Main Hawaiian Islands.

HOST: And Jon, did you have anything to add?

JON MARTINEZ: Sure. Randy makes a good point, but even with that history of human interaction in the main Hawaiian Islands, there are still some amazing and incredible places in the sanctuary. There are significant cultural and historical sites that are very meaningful. The ocean provides the food and other resources for many people in Hawaii and many people depend on it. And there is a strong interest in restoring the health of impacted areas. And reducing any further impacts to those areas. And the long-term goal is really about enhancing and maintaining healthy and functioning ecosystems.

HOST: Randy, given that we are in Corals Week, I’d like to turn our attention to corals. What makes coral reefs in Hawaii unique?

RANDY KOSAKI: Well, Hawaii is the only state in the Union that has coral atolls. That’s one thing that sets us apart from all the other states. We’re kind of a sub-tropical site. We’re at the northern limit of the tropics. And Hawaii’s one of the most remote archipelagos on Earth, so it’s pretty far to other coral reef sites. So as a result due to that isolation over the millions of years during which corals have evolved, we’ve evolved a lot of endemic species here in Hawaii. And these are species of corals, and not just corals, but fishes and all other kinds of marine life that evolved here are unique and are not found anywhere else on Earth. So Hawaii represents a hotspot of biodiversity for corals and all our other coral reef life. We have many, many species here that are not found anywhere else.

HOST: Jon, what are some of the threats that corals face in this part of the world?

JON MARTINEZ: Sure. So coral reefs are vulnerable to a variety of threats including land-based sources of pollution such as sediment, nutrients, and toxicants, those stressors can affect corals by causing disease or creating conditions favorable for algae to overgrow and compete with coral or even directly smother and kill coral. Changes to the balances of ecosystems like the removal of herbivores, which keep the coral/algal interactions in balance, can affect coral health by promoting algal overgrowth.

But some of the biggest threats to coral reefs across the world are impacts from climate change. Increases in ocean temperature can cause coral bleaching, the acidification of ocean water can prevent calcifying species like coral from forming skeletons, increases in the intensity of storms could cause damage to coral reefs or even accelerated coastal erosion which could enhance sedimentation processes…so, coral reefs are vulnerable to a lot of threats.

HOST: What I’d like to explore next is the role that our national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments play in terms of protecting coral reef ecosystems? And Randy, I’ll turn to you for this one first.

RANDY KOSAKI: Sure, national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments first and foremost, they offer some level of protection for our marine resources. So some of the sanctuaries may be based on kelp forests, some of them coral reefs, some of them even cultural and historic sites, shipwrecks and whatnot, so sanctuaries offer some level of protection for these resources. But more importantly, I think is that they highlight the marine environment, they raise awareness, and they can be used as education and outreach tools. Frankly, we’ll never have enough sanctuaries to save the oceans, the oceans are under significant threat, but we’ll never be able to set aside enough of the oceans to save them, so what these sites really represent are education and outreach opportunities where we can raise awareness about the plight of the oceans and hopefully encourage people to change their behaviors at home in ways that will make the planet and the way we use it more sustainable and minimize our impacts to these ocean sites.

HOST: Thank you. Jon did you have anything to add?

JON MARTINEZ: Yeah, I think that it’s worth noting a key distinction between the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the high levels of protection they have and other sanctuaries are that sanctuaries are intended to protect resources, but allow for compatible human use of the ocean. So recognizing that humans are part of the entire ecosystem, and the goal is to allow and promote sustainable and balanced ocean use that also promotes ecosystem integrity.

HOST: Jon, can you help us understand what kinds of coral research opportunities there are at your sites? Maybe highlight a recent project or an expedition, just to help for those of us that don’t get to go out and do this kind of work.

JON MARTINEZ: Sure. Interestingly for as long as scientists have been studying coral reefs and as much as has been learned, there’s still so much that’s not understood. For example, this summer and fall the Hawaiian Islands experienced a substantial coral bleaching event. Randy and I just returned from a two-week joint research survey where teams from the sanctuary and the National Marine Fisheries Service surveyed coral reefs from the sanctuary for coral bleaching and disease. We did this aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai. Our results are still being analyzed, but some of the basic questions that we had included: How did bleaching vary across geographic areas and coral species? How did it vary across coral life stages including adults and juveniles? We also wanted to understand whether bleached coral that are in compromised health state from coral bleaching, whether they experienced any vulnerability to coral diseases? We wanted to look at instances where algae may have grown over coral or any other unusual phenomena because a coral bleaching event to this scale doesn’t happen a whole lot in Hawaii, it has happened a few times in recorded history, but there’s still so much we don’t know about the dynamics of this.

And I think one of the biggest and most important follow-up questions to work on next is to understand of the coral that bleached, which corals recovered, which didn’t, and what were the factors that lead to either of those outcomes. And I think by doing this, that it really helps managers plan for the future and understand which threats need to be addressed first.

HOST: I’d like to hear from you both on this next question and Randy, I’ll ask you first. What is the role of technology in terms of coral research?

RANDY KOSAKI: Well, technology has always been important in coral reef research because we need to access an environment that’s not our normal habitat, that is go in underwater. SCUBA diving obviously has been a huge boon to coral reef research, but more recently we’ve been using so-called technical diving which is like SCUBA diving on steroids to reach the deeper portions of the coral reef habitat. Now most coral reef research is done at comfortable SCUBA diving depths like 20 feet to 80 or 90 feet, but corals and coral reef habitats actually go as deep as 400 to 500 feet so a large majority of the research of reefs has been done on a small portion of the habitat.

So we’re using technical diving to access these deeper coral reefs in the 200-300 foot range, and we’ve been finding some amazing things, dozens and dozens of new species because these are unexplored reefs, so many of the things we come back with are completely new to science. We’ve discovered an entirely new ecosystems that may be even dependent on different sources of photosynthesis and different food chains actually that support these reefs. And we’re also looking at connectivity between shallow reefs and deep reefs to see whether these deeper reefs need to be able to replenish some of the shallower reefs that have been disturbed by anthropogenic activities. So technology does play a huge role in terms of our exploration of these deeper coral reefs.

HOST: Thank you. And Jon, what can you share with us about the role of technology for coral research?

JON MARTINEZ: Well, technology greatly benefits coral reef research even through improving existing methods. For example, partners of ours from the XL Caitlin Survey, University of Queensland, Australia and Underwater Earth have created a way to do classic benthic photo-quadrant analyses in a more automated way. They use underwater scooters mounted with three cameras to take 360 degree photos of the world’s coral reefs. They then use sophisticated computer software to automatically analyze the photos and after some calibration and quality control exercises, it has been shown to be a very efficient way to collect and analyze data. And it can speed up the analysis of this type of work when compared to an analysis performed by an individual scientist on a photo-by-photo basis.

HOST: What have you learned from these surveys? Can you share anything with us about the health of Hawaii’s coral reefs?

JON MARTINEZ: To dive in a little deeper on the Caitlin Seaview Survey project that was done in the sanctuary this year, our partners came to Hawaii and used the technology to survey 30-35 reefs across the state, they were able to survey two kilometers in a dive, which is pretty efficient. So they came in August to survey a baseline condition of these reefs before the coral had bleached and then they just recently came back about a week or two ago to resurvey some of these same areas after they bleached. And the intent is that we can use the technology to compare pre- and post-bleaching to get a better quantitative understanding of which coral bleached in which areas. There’s some plans in motion to try to get them to come back to see what recovery of the corals are like in the future.

The coral bleaching and disease surveys that we just did on our recent cruise, we’re still analyzing the data and evaluating it, but from an early glance, I think it’s fair to say that the health of coral varies across different reefs in the sanctuary and across species. Some places coral health looks excellent, other places, there are some clues to suggest that land-based stressors might be influencing coral health among other stressors. And we definitely saw the impacts of high ocean temperature on coral health with a substantial amount of bleaching observed across all reefs that we surveyed.

HOST: Jon, what are the next steps for further exploring the long-term health of these reefs and reefs in other sanctuaries?

JON MARTINEZ: Dedicated and long-term coral reef monitoring will allow the ability to continually assess coral reef health and the influence of threats to coral reefs. So NOAA has the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program and several research units within NOAA also focus on both field and laboratory based coral reef research. For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service Coral Reef Ecosystem Program here in the Pacific Islands does a lot of this work. The Coral Health and Disease Program at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science does a lot of this work as well and the Coral Reef Watch Program out of NESDIS has developed a sophisticated program to predict when coral may be bleaching based on satellite data and some advanced algorithms. So all of these groups do coral reef research and there’s a lot of efforts being put into researching coral reefs here in Hawaii and around the world.

HOST: Randy, did you have anything to add?

RANDY KOSAKI: Well I just would like to add that I think these coral reef monitoring programs like the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program establish really really valuable baselines on the health of our coral reefs. As climate change progresses and presumably worsens, I think we’ll be seeing more and more impacts to coral reefs and these monitoring programs will allow us to detect these changes, document them, and hopefully use them again to change people’s behaviors and raise awareness about our impact to the oceans and maybe even more optimistically monitoring programs during our lifetimes will actually be able to document improvement in the health of these reefs if we’re able to turn around some of our bad habits like excessive fossil fuel consumption, pollution, sedimentation, if we can bring some of these impacts under control, we may actually be able to use monitoring programs to document great improvements in reef health so that’s my optimistic hope for the future.

HOST: I think that’s a great optimistic hope for the future. I want to expand a little bit more on this last question and talk with you both about the other organizations that are studying coral reefs in Hawaii? You’ve shared with us obviously how your office, the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages these two marine protected areas, but given that there is a lot of work to be done across a very large area, who do you collaborate with and why?

JON MARTINEZ: Well, our sanctuary is relatively new to supporting coral reef research, but it’s an area we see a need to grow into and supplement along with existing partners that have been doing research for years to decades. This summer was really an all hands on deck situation with the coral bleaching and the more we can come together to learn about issues like temperature-induced coral bleaching the better that managers will be able to understand these threats and devise strategies to manage the resources. So, we work with a lot of the key research institutions here in Hawaii including the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, State of Hawaii Department of Aquatic Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, and other researchers across various programs at the University of Hawaii.

HOST: Thank you. Randy?

RANDY KOSAKI: I don’t know that I have too much to add to that. NOAA has a lot of scientific capacity in terms of monitoring and doing research on coral reefs and there are also great pockets of expertise outside of NOAA so we collaborate extensively with university scientists both here at the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology also mainland universities as Jon mentioned the University of Queensland and the Caitlin Seaview camera, so we’ll go wherever we need to get the appropriate expertise that we need to answer questions that are of value to agencies and organizations that manage coral reefs.

HOST: Jon, for our listeners today, are there things they can do to not only help with protecting corals wherever they may live, but also maybe a role they may play in support of coral research?

JON MARTINEZ: Sure, one of the biggest threats that we talked about earlier was climate change and this is a global issue and it’s an issue that everyone across the world can help with. Just by doing things in your everyday life to reduce energy usage and carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas production into the atmosphere, we can all help lessen the driver of climate change and hopefully the impacts as well.

Beyond that at the local level, people can get educated on coral reef issues. They can get trained on how to recognize healthy and unhealthy ecosystems. And when they’re out enjoying the ocean, they can be observant and try to be able to identify any strange phenomena like a coral disease outbreak or a coral bleaching event. They can learn who their local resource managers and scientists are and report what they’re seeing to them. Coral reef scientists can’t be everywhere at the same time so initial reports from an educated public can really make a difference.

HOST: That’s great, thank you. And now a question that I’ll pose to each of you for our aspiring researchers in the audience: How long have you been working with NOAA and how did you get to this particular job? Randy, I’ll start with you.

RANDY KOSAKI: Well, I’ve been working for NOAA and NOAA Sanctuaries for about 12 years now. But long, long before that, this career path kind of grew out of just a plain old love of the ocean. I grew up fishing and diving and surfing and then you get to college and they tell you that no you can’t major in surfing, well, then I had to take a more academic path into marine science.

So, my first trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was actually as an undergraduate student and that’s kind of evolved into a career for me and so now we do try to make spaces on our cruises for undergraduate science students to join us, just keep that going and to build the next generation of marine scientists. But for me, this is a hobby that’s grown way out of control and I feel really, really fortunate that I’ve been able to pursue this line of work.

HOST: Thank you. Jon, can you share a little bit of your story with us?

JON MARTINEZ: Sure, so I’ve been working with Sanctuaries for the past six years. I joined NOAA through a student career experience program called the Graduate Science Program and that’s run through the NOAA Office of Education. It’s a program designed to hire graduate students doing NOAA-relevant research into NOAA research positions. And there’s a variety of programs designed to get students experience with NOAA science and I would encourage any interested folks in the audience to look into these programs. You can find a lot of them on the NOAA Office of Education website. One that’s worth noting that the National Marine Sanctuaries is the Nancy Foster program, so you can find information about that on our website as well.

Over the years, I’ve worked in various capacities within the Sanctuaries, but my experience with the ecosystems and connections with partners really prepared me well to do research here at the national marine sanctuaries. I did my undergraduate and graduate research here in Hawaii and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the species in the ocean and the place. I’m really passionate about wanting to help conserve and protect them and that’s what got me to Sanctuaries.

HOST: And now for our last question, do you have any final, closing words to leave our listeners with today? Jon, I’d like to start with you.

JON MARTINEZ: Thanks Kate. Well, as we’re talking about coral and it’s Corals Week, I think it’s important for folks to remember that there are things we can do in our everyday lives to reduce threats to corals including impacts from climate change, we can do our best to educate others on coral reef issues, and there’s a growing understanding that promoting coral resilience or the ability of corals to recover from a disturbance by reducing stressors and enhancing ecosystem quality for corals is going to be important for the future health of coral reefs. If people can learn to enjoy and interact with the ocean in a responsible way, we can all coexist with and promote healthy ecosystems.

HOST: Thank you. And Randy?

RANDY KOSAKI: Well, through our research on coral reefs, we’ve discovered so many amazing things. These are some of the most amazing ecosystems on Earth, some of the most diverse ecosystems, and we’ve found that they’re under significant threat from climate change. So, for our listeners, I would say that even if you live thousands of miles away from the nearest coral reef, there are many things you can do in your everyday life that will benefit not only coral reefs, but the entire global ecosystem. Reducing our use of plastics, reducing our use of fossil fuels, minimizing our carbon footprint, these are all things that we can do on a day-to-day basis that will greatly improve the environment, not just for coral reefs, but for all ecosystems on Earth. I mean the entire planet is under threat from climate change. And so these are things we should do not just for coral reefs, but for the health of our planet and for all the animals and amazing organisms that inhabit this planet.

HOST: Thanks Jon and Randy for joining us today by phone and helping us explore Hawaii’s coral reefs. For our listeners, please see our show notes for links to more information. That’s all for today’s show. Thanks for tuning in!

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