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News Release

For Immediate Release
Contact: Barbra Pleadwell (808) 292-3031 or
Aulani Wilhelm (on board the expedition)


(Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands-September 23, 2002)-Halfway through their 30-day research expedition, scientists from NOWRAMP 2002 (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program) continue to report health, abundance and new observations during their 10-stop tour of the remote portion of the Hawaiian archipelago.

At the core of the research mission, Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) teams continue to survey diverse habitat areas at each of the islands and atolls of the leeward chain. So far, the teams have completed surveys at 75 new sites, bringing the total number of sites surveyed since NOWRAMP began in 2000 to 276. The purpose of these surveys is to identify and rapidly evaluate and various habitat types within the relatively shallow coral reef habitats (typically between 0 and 60 feet) of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).

In addition, 24 towed diver and 7 TOAD (tethered optical assessment device) surveys have been completed to obtain quick assessments of habitat over large areas. These surveys serve to complement the detailed look that the REA teams provide, enabling scientists to apply the habitat characteristics across similar areas. Using TOAD surveys with an acoustic seabed classification system enable scientists to take photographs and video of deeper reef habitats too deep to study using REA or towed diver surveys.

Towed diver habitat surveys on the windward side of the barrier reef at French Frigate Shoals reported moderate abundances of crown-of-thorns sea stars that were not found during the NOWRAMP 2000 or 2001 surveys. According to Rusty Brainard, Ph.D., chief scientist aboard the Townsend Cromwell, while a natural component of coral reef ecosystems, coral-eating crown-of-thorns sea stars can have devastating effects on coral reef communities when their populations increase to infestation levels. During towboard surveys on NOWRAMP 2000, moderate abundances of crown-of-thorns sea stars were observed only at Pearl and Hermes and Kure Atolls.

New research components:
New components of this years NOWRAMP expedition including quantitative algae sampling, inter-tidal REA surveys, and maritime archaeology, have yielded new finds that have added value to the mission. For example, quantitative sampling of marine algae is being conducted for the first time in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by REA teams on both the Rapture and the R/V Townsend Cromwell. Most significant is the fact that algal experts have not found alien algae at the reefs surveyed so far. This is in contrast to the main Hawaiian Islands where alien algae dominate many reef habitats at places like Kane`ohe Bay and Waikiki Beach.

"Quantitative sampling is important to allow scientists and resource managers an improved understanding of how reefs are built and is useful as an indicator of overall ecosystem health," said Peter Vroom, Ph.D., algal expert aboard the Townsend Cromwell. "So far on this trip, the algal biologists have been somewhat surprised by the amount of calcium carbonate-producing algae found. These algae are critical sand producers in healthy coral reef ecosystems."

Half-way through the expedition, algal scientists are already observing changes in species composition between islands. "As we travel up the archipelago, team members are clearly seeing the differences between islands in terms of the balance between fish, coral and seaweed," said Dr. Karla McDermid, one of the Rapid Ecological Assessment team leaders. McDermid continued, saying that it's been "interesting to document that different pristine reefs reach different states of balance among species depending on the unique physical and biological conditions at each place."

Like the coral and invertebrate researchers, McDermid and other team members have found several species of algae that are rare to the main Hawaiian Islands. One of these is Sporochnus, a brown, twiggy seaweed they observed at Maro Reef. They have also found many red, blade-like seaweeds-some star-shaped, some with little 'feet' for attachment to rocks-whose identification will have to wait until the vessel returns.

As research divers ascend to the surface from their work, they come up with questions about their observations. Populations of Liagora at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Ganonema at French Frigate Shoals showed patchy localized distributions, causing team members to begin hypothesizing about the causes of these unusual patterns. "I am so pleased to hear people on the expedition asking questions about what they've seen, posing hypotheses, and thinking about the next steps for future research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands," said McDermid.

Inter-tidal surveys:
Another new component of the NOWRAMP mission is an inter-tidal and shallow water rapid ecological assessment (REA) of algae and invertebrates. In 2000 and 2001, REA teams focused on areas between 25 and 60 feet in depth. This year, a two-person team has been braving the wave-washed rocky shorelines in search of limu (algae), `opihi (limpets), urchins, sea cucumbers, slugs, crabs and other invertebrates. This inter-tidal component was included this year to begin to develop a baseline of information for areas that, to date, have not been surveyed.

Although the inter-tidal team has collected and recorded several new species distributions at each island or atoll and have been intrigued by a number of observations they've made, for Larry Basch, intertidal REA team leader, Laysan Island has held the most surprises so far. "The geology at Laysan is very complex, with ancient limestone reefs that are now exposed, interlaced with sand beaches, arches, and shallow offshore lagoons and reefs. These exposed reefs hold many-leveled terraces of tide pools that cascade from one to another with each large ocean swell that sweeps through. Laysan is unique among the NWHI. One benthic (sea floor) expert, Donald Potts, Ph.D., noted that it is unlike anything else he has seen in the Pacific in terms of geology. Also, just offshore in knee-deep water are thick schools of anchovy, apparently drawn by shallow high nutrient conditions," commented Basch.

High nutrient conditions have also created a rich and diverse assemblage of limu, showing the highest biomass (density) of any intertidal zone in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands so far. The scientists also found the highest diversity of invertebrate animals in the shallows at Laysan seen so far. "There are several crabs, lobster, snails and other animals -- many that feed on limu -- that we've added to our species lists, and a sea anemone (Heteractis malu) and crabs that has not previously been seen at Laysan.." Typically, the sub-tropical Pacific Ocean is low in nutrients but the area around Laysan appears to be quite rich. "One could say that the reason is the high number of seabirds present on Laysan," said Basch, "But, in my opinion, there's more to investigate. Maro Reef also contained limu species that typically exist only under high nutrient conditions. This may be due to oceanographic conditions that bring deep, nutrient-rich water to the surface.

Fish Surveys:
For the fish scientists, abundance and size continue to be the theme of their observations. One of the most unique sightings so far has been the spotting of a blue chub or nenue (Sectator ocyurus) that is typically oceanic (not found near reefs), has only rarely been reported in the main Hawaiian Islands, and has never been reported in the NWHI before. The chub is normally found in Japan, the Society Islands and from California to Ecuador.

The fish scientists also observed large schools of juvenile `aweoweo (Hawaiian bigeye, Priacanthus meeki) at a number of locations which they surmise is a good sign for the longevity of this species. They also reported the observation of large numbers of sharks and large ulua or jackfish were in nearly all REA dives. According to the scientists, the abundance of these important predators appears to be as healthy, if not healthier, than observed in previous years.

Despite its more northerly location, the reefs at Pearl and Hermes Atoll had some of the greatest diversity of fish seen so far on the trip. This includes a number of angelfish species that are rarely seen in the populated main Hawaiian islands.

"We observed a greater number of large male uhu (parrotfish) than we typically see in the the main Hawaiian islands. These larger males are typically targeted by spearfishers which may account for their relatively smaller numbers in the populated islands compared to the NWHI," said Alan Friedlander, Ph.D, one of the REA team leaders. "Our overall impression so far is that at each place we visit, we see an ecosystem that is in balance -- with all the necessary animal and plants, functioning in as natural a state as possible," Friedlander summarized. "This is in stark contrast to the main Hawaiian islands where we have either damaged or discarded important parts - either specific species or habitat, or both -- causing the ecosystem to malfunction.

"Now that we have had the opportunity to survey a much broader area and a wider variety of habitats, we see distinct differences in the fishes between basalt islands, coral atolls and coralline islands," Friedlander concluded.

Invertebrate Surveys:
Dwayne Minton, Ph.D, invertebrate biologist from the National Parks Service, commented on the progress that he and his colleagues have made on this trip, saying that "in combination with the results from NOWRAMP 2000, we have hundreds of new invertebrate records never seen before at each of the islands we've surveyed so far. NOWRAMP 2000 increased known invertebrates at French Frigate Shoals from approximately 150 species to over 600 species. NOWRAMP 2002 has added many more new records, but the exact number will not be known for a while."

While most specimens will not be identified until returning to Honolulu, half a dozen crab species and many of the nudibranch (sea slug) species that have been found may be new records for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Some of these may be entirely new to science (never described by scientists anywhere on the globe before). The invertebrate researchers have also made observations that highlight the difference between reef ecosystems in the main Hawaiian Islands and those of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. "Unlike the main Hawaiian islands, few alien invertebrate species have been observed on the reefs in the Northwestern islands, and of those we've seen, none appear to be very abundant," said Minton. "With this said, however, the presence of any of these potentially invasive species, even in their current benign state, illustrates the fact that these pristine reefs can be invaded. Unless vigilantly guarded, these reefs could become home to future populations of unwanted species."

Coral Monitoring:
In addition to the work of coral scientists who are part of the REA teams, a coral monitoring team was added to NOWRAMP 2002's agenda. The team has been working to establish permanent monitoring sites at each of the islands visited during the expedition. Midway through the trip, the team has established 9 new sites and re-surveyed 3 that were established in 2001. The establishment of these sites is critical to monitor the changes that may occur over time. According to Jim Maragos, Ph.D., team leader for the coral monitoring team, new records of corals were reported at Necker, French Frigate Shoals and Midway.

Part of the coral monitoring team's effort includes collecting coral cores at some of the survey sites. Two-inch diameter coral cores are collected from massive colonies of Porites evermanni (lobe coral) at different depths and habitat types. According to Daria Siciliano, a member of the team, "these core samples will allow us to establish historical and recent growth rates of the corals across the archipelago, and determine the effect of global climate change on the growth and calcification of remote reefs, far removed from human impacts."

In addition, the coral monitoring team is also working to improve the accuracy of habitat maps created from satellite imagery.

Terrestrial Research:
The Terrestrial Team set out on this expedition with two primary goals - first, to assess the bird populations on the different islands to assess populations of the region's approximate 14 million seabirds; and second, to assess plant populations and do what is possible to control invasive weed species. One of the aggressive weeds that has been targeted is a yellow daisy-like plant called Verbisina. Two biologists were left at Pearl and Hermes Atoll yesterday to set up a 10 day field camp to combat the aggressive weed and monitor the bird population at the Atoll's southeast island. They will be picked up when the Rapture returns to the atoll on the 26th.

The team also gathered seeds from the endangered Nihoa Palm or loulu (Pritchardia remota) from Nihoa Island and take them to Laysan Island for outplanting. The palm was once found on Laysan island before human impacts and commercial exploitation of the island wiped the plant out by 1923. A total of 320 seeds were gathered on Nihoa, then soaked twice in a mild chlorine solution to prevents the transfer of harmful bacteria, fungus or other disease organisms that could otherwise be transferred to Laysan. Once sprouted, the seeds will be planted over the next few of weeks by 2 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Technicians stationed at Laysan and raised in a shade house until they are ready to be outplanted. In 1923 Laysan was devoid of virtually all plant life. Today, native species abound.

Maritime Archaeology and History:
One aspect of NOWRAMP research that has quickly captured the imagination of the expedition's website followers is the work of the maritime archaeology and history team. This three-person team has been searching for signs of shipwrecks, utilizing published reports and suggested coordinates from old ship logs, more modern reports from mariners, and other literature to target them.

At French Frigate Shoals the team surveyed a well-known "barge" in near shore waters off Tern Island. The barge actually turned out to be a twin-screw landing craft, identified by Hans Van Tilburg, Ph.D., that was upside down. According to Van Tilburg, amphibious vessels of this type were some of the 'unsung heroes' of the Pacific War. Also in the vicinity were a submersible lifting pontoon and two large old anchors, unshackled and placed on top of reefs as markers or trophies.

To the southeast of Laysan Island Van Tilburg's team documented the wreck of the fishing vessel Kaiyo Maru #5, as well as an interesting fragment of a bamboo raft and other maritime flotsam found nearby. Near the landing area that was used during the days of guano mining, the team found three encrusted anchors, likely from guano transport vessels. Further offshore, the team discovered what they term a 'suspicious site' (one they feel may likely be a shipwreck site), consisting of fouled anchors embedded into the reef and encrusted iron debris which are characteristic of wreck sites. Van Tilburg feels confident that the area is a possible wreck site that warrants a more detailed, multi-day survey in the future.

During their four-day stop, at Midway Atoll, the team will survey a number of well-known wreck sites, including the submarine rescue vessel Macaw lost during the rescue of the USS Flier in 1944 and the turn-of-the-century sailing ship Carrollton carrying coal from Australia to San Francisco. Their first target will be a ballast pile wreck site and nearby anchors in the historic Wells Harbor mid-lagoon. Both the General Seigel and the Wandering Minstrel were lost in this area.

Calm seas have continued to greet the scientists at each location, with the exception of 8 to 10 foot swells they encountered during the crossing between Laysan Island and Pearl and Hermes Atoll a few days ago.

"It continues to become abundantly clear that the observations of each day brings new insights and raises new questions about the complex ecology of the NWHI that we need to follow up on," summarized Randall Kosaki, Ph.D, chief scientist aboard the Rapture. 'These NOWRAMP missions are just a beginning - a quick glimpse of what's here to offer us a road map of the areas we need to explore more closely, the indicators we need to pay attention to which will help us mark critical changes over time, and the relationships among species and between animals and their habitat."

To accomplish their mission, scientists to date have safely completed over 700 SCUBA dives.

"It is either prophetic or ironic that we find ourselves mid-way through the cruise on Midway Island; not only the site of a pivotal Naval Battle but a "turning point" of sorts as we head into the second half of a very successful research and education expedition," said Greg McFall, dive supervisor for SCUBA operations aboard the vessel Rapture. "Because of the diving experience and diversity represented in the respective dive teams, the job of diving supervision is made much easier. The teams are self-motivated, safety-oriented and dedicated to collecting the information necessary to make this expedition a resounding success."

Two research vessels, the Rapture and the R/V Townsend Cromwell, headed to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands earlier this month a to expand the baseline of knowledge and information about the biological, historical, and cultural resources of the area. This baseline information is critical for the development of effective management strategies and future priorities for the region, and will be of value to all agencies with NWHI jurisdiction.

In all, aboard the two vessels, there are 3 teams of divers conducting rapid ecological assessments of various sites at each island, reef or atoll. Other activities include night time sonar measurements to accurately map the seafloor habitat; towboarding and towed camera surveys to obtain quick assessments of habitat over large areas; coral monitoring and hyperspectral imaging; intertidal and shallow water surveys and maritime archaeology. The vessels are expected to return to O'ahu Monday, October 7, 2002.

Primary collaborators are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, along with the University of Hawai'i, Bishop Museum, and the National Park Service.

Media Note: A sampling of still images and newly shot video will be available through Hastings & Pleadwell. (Still images were shot by Jim Watt, video images were shot by Mike May. Please credit photographer and NOWRAMP 2002.)

A few NOWRAMP participants returned to Honolulu from Midway on Saturday, September 21 and can be available for interviews. They include:

  • Nainoa Thompson, President, Polynesian Voyaging Society
  • Ann Bell Hudgins, U.S. Fish and Wildife Service
  • Na`alehu Anthony, Videographer for the Expedition

Arrangements to interview them can be made through Hastings & Pleadwell.

To track the vessels, obtain anecdotal stories from participants or learn more about the expedition overall, visit:

Updates are being posted daily.









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