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Diving Deeper: Episode 26 (September 9, 2010) -

Research in the National Marine Sanctuaries

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What research happens in our national marine sanctuaries, and why?
As we learned in a previous podcast, national marine sanctuaries are protected waters that include habitats such as rocky reefs, kelp forests, deep-sea canyons, and underwater archaeological sites. Research and exploration is a key component of our national marine sanctuaries.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Steve Gittings on research and exploration in the sanctuaries. Steve is the Science Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Hi Steve, welcome to our show.

STEVE GITTINGS: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me.

HOST: Steve, can you remind our listeners where our national marine sanctuaries are located?

STEVE GITTINGS: Sure, well there are 14 different operating units within the National Marine Sanctuary System. Their locations range from the northeast coast of the United States all the way down to Florida on the East Coast and then from Washington to California on the West Coast, the Hawaiian Islands, and even as far away as American Samoa in the Western Pacific.

HOST: Is there a science program for our sanctuaries, something that ties all of the aspects together?

STEVE GITTINGS: There is a science program. It’s a very diverse one and it’s diverse because the needs for all the marine sanctuaries are so different. As we said, they range in habitats from kelp forests to coral reefs and ledge communities off Georgia, Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii, and then American Samoa is an example of a Western Pacific reef. So because the resources themselves vary so much, so does the science.

We have a program we call the Conservation Science Program in the Marine Sanctuary System and these are the types of science programs that link the science itself to management activities that go on in the sanctuaries. There’s also what we call a Maritime Heritage Program, which deals with the archaeological investigations and resource management needs of the program.

HOST: How does this program, the Conservation Science Program, structure science activities at our sanctuary sites?

STEVE GITTINGS: All the sanctuaries have programs in their science activities that involve characterization of the resources that exist in the sanctuary, that might mean mapping or it might mean inventories of species or counts of individuals or cover of coral. There’s also activities related to monitoring, of course, this is one of our big activities. And monitoring is really more about identifying the status of things as they are today and the directions in which those resources are going – whether things are getting more out of whack or more like they should be, more natural.

And then there’s also a number of science activities that happen in sanctuaries that are not directly monitoring or directly characterization, things like trying to understand processes that affect the health of animals or plants, understanding how temperature is affecting coral health or bleaching, one of things that happens to corals when they get too warm is they lose algae that are essential to the growth and survival of the species, so trying to understand processes like that are critically important to our research programs. Understanding the natural conditions that affect levels of biodiversity and abundance, those are all process-related research programs that supplement the characterization and monitoring activities that happen in the sanctuaries.

HOST: What are the key focus areas for science and research in the sanctuaries?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, it sort of follows that those are diverse as well. We do an assessment of our science needs across the program and in fact we just finished the most recent one and it ’s posted up on our website at under our research tab. But there is a science needs assessment that was just completed that identifies many of those diverse science needs that the program has from sanctuary to sanctuary and the relationships between those science needs and the management issues that they help us address. So the science needs assessment is a really important document to know about if you’re at all interested in working in marine sanctuaries on research, monitoring, or characterization activities.

HOST: Steve, can you highlight a few examples of some of these research activities?

STEVE GITTINGS: Some of the examples of the more interesting work that happens in our program, and this will give you a flavor of the nature and diversity of the science. We do quite a bit of mapping or we have done quite a bit of mapping of the sea floor to look for areas of high probability for sensitive coral communities in deep water, you can’t identify those communities unless you map and look for characteristics that might suggest that they’re actually down there and that the development of those communities is substantial.

Whales get a lot of attention in the Marine Sanctuary Program, not because they’re charismatic as much as they’re protected species and the Sanctuary Program helps support the research related to restoring species that are endangered or threatened, so whales fit into that category. In the northeast, one of the research projects had to do with identifying the locations of high densities of certain species of whales, particularly right whales which are so endangered, and following that, identifying the locations of shipping lanes that were nearby and it just so happened that the shipping lanes cut through one of the areas of highest abundance for right whales and other species in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We were able to eventually get a change in the shipping lane locations off Boston so that they were shifted only a few miles to the north, but they reduced the risk of collisions with whales by something between 60 and 80 percent, depending on the species of whales that you were talking about. So that was a very good management application of one of our research activities.

In some places sanctuaries are overfished, like a lot of places in the ocean are, so we’ve resorted to closing certain areas, certain small areas within the sanctuaries. There’s a monitoring program that goes along with that, that tries to help understand how much that closure affected the abundance and diversity of species that it was intended to protect.

We’re also mapping sensitive areas within marine sanctuaries so that we know more about areas that need special protection in the event of spills for example. Collecting data and monitoring and mapping within those sensitive areas is critical so that we can have a baseline against which to measure any effects that might happen and targets for restoration of those areas after the insult is gone.

In the future, research will evolve the way research always does, we’ll look for needs and we’ll identify them by putting people to the task.

HOST: You’ve touched on this a little bit with the science needs assessment, but how do you decide which projects move forward?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, the science needs themselves are laid out in a framework that first describes what the priority management issues are. So we ask each of the marine sanctuaries to pick their five or ten top problems, usually whale strikes by ships or something of that nature, some management issue that we know we can address if we have more information. So, once we have their top management issues laid out, the science needs underneath those things can be laid out as well. So the management issues drive the science priorities.

HOST: So back to the science program that you explained to us earlier. How does the characterization that you mentioned, the mapping and the monitoring, and the research, how does that help us protect our marine resources?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, a lot of information is put together in something we call condition reports, on a periodic basis. That started about five years ago or so, we set a framework aside to develop what we call these condition reports and those are intended to track the status and trends of particularly important resources within each marine sanctuary and give us a feeling as to whether they’re improving towards the direction we want or declining in a direction we don’t want and we can respond accordingly.

HOST: What kind of information is included in these reports for each of the sites?

STEVE GITTINGS: The condition reports themselves are focused on trying to identify what changes are occurring in living and non-living resources in the sanctuaries. We have three major categories within which we monitor the resources of the sanctuaries themselves and these are related to the compartments that any marine ecosystem has – water, habitat, and living resources. We also happen to focus on archaeological resources as well and I shouldn’t neglect those because for some marine sanctuaries, that’s what they’re really built on is archaeological value, but even in the ‘natural resource sites,’ archaeological sites exist and those are important to those sanctuaries as well.

The way we get this information together is by asking for the services of experts within the region of each marine sanctuary to come together and discuss a series of questions that we’ve laid out at the national level, 17 standardized questions that we’ve asked every marine sanctuary to answer. How they answer those questions is more or less up to them. They’ll have certain priority resources that they might measure within say the water quality category and focus on those and determine is the answer they’re getting better or is it getting worse, but they’ll do so with the help of experts in water quality from that particular region in the country.

So, the data sources for this information, could include, we try to focus as much as we can on published information in the scientific literature, but we have to rely on other people’s data as well as our own. And the marine sanctuaries do collect some of their own data, but by and large, we depend on our partners for not just volunteering their expert services and coming up with answers to our questions, but in providing data to help do so. And we invite particular people because we know they have information to bring to the table.  

HOST: Are condition reports complete for all sanctuaries?

STEVE GITTINGS: Twelve of the 14 management units have completed their condition reports to date. Once those two are complete, we’ll go back to the beginning and start again with Stellwagen Bank which did the first one. So on a five-year cycle we try to repeat these condition reports, but the 12 out of the 14 are up on the web and available for anybody to look at.

But each one of them is written in a fashion that starts with a description of the pressures on the sanctuary – that is the type of human activities occurring that influence or could affect ecosystem condition. And then the questions themselves are answered in the middle of the report. And then the reports all end with a section on management responses to the pressures that were described at the beginning of the report.

The reason these reports are really written is not just for us to get a feel for whether our management effectiveness is good or not, but that is one reason, but they’re also written for the general public who’s interested in participating in the public process that we use to help us decide what management activities are going to be priorities for the next five to ten years. We call it a management plan review process. So these reports really are written to inform the public as much as they are written to inform us.

HOST: Steve, how is research organized or coordinated at a sanctuary to avoid overuse of this resource that we’re ultimately trying to protect?

STEVE GITTNGS: Well, within our program, we have a permitting system and that’s basically the way we control access or extraction from marine sanctuaries. So, for much of the research that’s conducted, if it’s going to violate a sanctuary regulation that would otherwise be an illegal activity, a permit is required. So breaking off corals or in some cases taking shells, sand, or whatever it might be, if those are part of a research activity, we want to know about it and some of those would require permits. Sometimes research activities don’t obviously, but we still would like to know about it so we can track what research happens in the sanctuary.

HOST: How is the data collected for the condition reports?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, that very much depends on the question and the particular metric that we’re trying to get at. So, if we’re talking about the natural resource side of things – water quality, habitat quality, or living resource qualities – it could involve instrumented gadgets on the bottom, it could involve buoys that are collecting air or water quality information directly, it could involve sampling from ships, boats, divers, there are all sorts of ways that data are collected. A lot of living resource data in coral reef environments is from photographic evidence on the bottom, so photographic data can be translated to numerical information.

A lot of remotely collected information, either by satellite or sonar systems, there are people out there with plankton tows collecting information on krill abundance or something related to that. We tag whales by approaching them with rubber boats with long poles on them and slap suction tags on them and the whales swim off and gather data for us. So there’s a whole variety of ways in which data are collected. And, like I said before, a lot of the data itself is not collected by marine sanctuary people, but by instruments or by other people who happen to be working in the marine sanctuaries and are willing to let their data be used for our purposes.

HOST: How does your monitoring plan change after an event like a hurricane or an oil spill?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well the event itself will dictate whether or not the frequency of the monitoring or the type of monitoring should change. And in most cases, it will. We have events like algal blooms that are just massive abundances of certain planktonic algae that happen to change the color of the water and can cause fish kills and can cause noxious odors that affect humans. So when those kinds of events occur, of course you have to track where these things are going, the levels of abundance and so forth, and when the threat is gone.

Coral bleaching is another process that happens not every summer, but quite frequently in the summer, in the coral reef sites. We track coral bleaching as best we can throughout the summer to find out whether mortality follows or recovery follows. And to do that you have to monitor pretty regularly.

Ship groundings need immediate attention when it comes to tracking the damage caused by the ship when it grounded and then starting to investigate the recovery process and the nature of the recovery as it occurs, because that’s not only a matter of management and science interest, but a legal one too, it becomes part of a court case that is eventually made against the responsible party, so frequency has to increase there. And the same goes for spills, whether it’s oil or something else, you can imagine, you want to be out every day or so to track the progress or the movement of those spills so that you can see what resources are at risk as a result.

I should also say that right now there’s a massive effort to respond with scientific studies and monitoring related to the spill going on in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a whole phase that we’re moving into on that called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment phase. Where as after we’re done responding to the spill or even while we’re still responding to the spill, we start to assess the damage caused by any oil that might have damaged resources. So there are Natural Resource Damage Assessments being conducted in the marshlands, offshore, for birds, for turtles, you name it, there’s studies going on related to that BP spill related to that the resource damages.

HOST: So now that we’ve looked a lot at the data collection process – how data’s collected, how often, understanding a little bit more about condition reports. What happens when one of these condition reports is completed? How is it used at a sanctuary site?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, one of the primary reasons we do the condition reports is to help us understand whether our management approaches are working. We have certain goals for each marine sanctuary with regard to protecting biodiversity or improving the status or trends of certain resources so we use these reports to help us determine whether or not that’s in fact occurring. They also help us identify gaps or areas that need more attention than we’ve been giving them in the past.

Now the sanctuaries use most of this information, along with input from the public, to help develop what they call a management plan or revise a management plan. We have management plan revisions that occur every five to ten years or so and the information from those condition reports helps us revise those plans. And those become action plans for the next five to ten years. So you can imagine the information in the condition reports becomes a critical component of five to ten years worth of work in the future.

They also identify human activities that are particularly threatening to natural resources or archaeological resources, which are also in our purview. So, we can make determinations about whether certain human activities need to be controlled in the future and make proposals along those lines if we feel they do. They also determine whether or not marine sanctuaries should be expanded or the shape should change.

Now some of the other ways, I’ll give you a few examples, of ways in which the different marine sanctuaries have used information coming from the condition reports.

At Gray’s Reef, a marine sanctuary off Georgia, about 20 square miles I believe, there were problems there with the abundance of certain species of fish that were being targeted by spearfishermen solely and other species of course weren’t, these were the large carnivorous species on the bottom, and the managers at Gray’s Reef used some of the information from their condition report to support a decision to ban spearfishing in that sanctuary.

At the Monitor, they determined in their condition report that they were severely lacking in water quality monitoring and that eventually led to a partnership with the North Carolina Aquarium for the aquarium to pick up the duties along the lines of monitoring water quality. So it expanded the nature of what that marine sanctuary had been doing, it’s an archaeological site solely, but water quality information is important even to a site like that because you need to understand corrosion potential of the water and things like that.

In the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the volunteer programs that they conduct, uses the condition report as part of their training curriculum.

HOST: For our listeners today, if someone’s interested in volunteering, how would they find more information?

STEVE GITTINGS: Some of the sanctuaries have actual volunteer coordinators, some of the sanctuaries coordinate volunteers through their research program directly. So, contacting any individual marine sanctuary is by far the best way to get involved as a volunteer. Recognizing that there’s some training involved, in most marine sanctuaries at least, to get the volunteers started and to keep them on track. So there is a bit of a commitment on the training time as well as on the field time. The easiest way to get involved is to directly contact the marine sanctuary and they’ll direct you to the right place, to the right person who would coordinate those volunteer activities.

HOST: Steve, because we have listeners that don’t necessarily live along the coast or in areas close to our national marine sanctuaries, how is all of the research and exploration you’ve talked about today, how is it important to them? And actually, really, how is it important to all of us?

STEVE GITTINGS: Well, most of the research that we conduct in the sanctuaries is all focused on understanding the ocean itself and the ecosystems supported in the ocean and whether or not those ecosystems are maintaining their integrity.

A healthy ocean in general is critical to all of us. We all depend on the ocean every day for so many things including fresh water through rain; we depend on it for absorbing our greenhouse gases we produce in our manufacturing processes, in our power generation, in our transportation systems; food; medicine directly comes from the ocean; the ocean controls our weather; keeps the Earth from overheating.

And it’s only through research and exploration, some of which is conducted in our marine sanctuaries, that we’ll ever understand the full measure of services that are provided by the ocean to us and be able to use the resources of the ocean in a sustainable way.

So all of us either on the coast or inland, I believe we need to think in new ways about the ocean, and the Earth for that matter. Ways that promote lifestyles that sustain our planet, not using the planet to sustain our lifestyles.

HOST: Thanks Steve for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking more about the kinds of research happening in our national marine sanctuaries. To learn more, please visit

That’s all for today’s show. Please join us for our next episode in October.