Beyond the populated islands of the Hawaiian archipelago lie the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands… a chain of islands, atolls and reefs that stretches 1,900 kilometers into the North Pacific. This remote paradise is being considered as a National Marine Sanctuary, to ensure long-term protection of its coral reefs, marine species and archeological treasures. Efforts are underway to determine how to manage this vast ecosystem, second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The job begins with an assessment of the ecosystem, which encompasses 7,200 kilometers of coral reefs… among the healthiest on the planet. These reefs and shoals are home to 7,000 species -- including many found only in these waters, and endangered ones, like the green sea turtle and monk seal.
The work today begins at Snug Harbor in Honolulu where researchers are loading gear on board the Hi'ialakai. The former Coast Guard ship was commissioned last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor, map and survey the reserve - an important step toward gaining permanent protected status as a National Marine Sanctuary.
Randall Kosaki is a fish biologist with the Reserve, and chief scientist for this 25-day expedition. He manages a small floating city equipped with dive boats, sea labs, multi-beam sonar and a decompression chamber in event of a diving accident. Moments
before departure he goes over last-minute details with his crew and members of the state and federal research teams.
Their projects range from maritime archeology to the impact of coral bleaching, when environmental stress whitens coral and eventually kills it. An isolated bleaching event was recorded here in 2002, the first on record in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"We hope that we will start seeing signs of recovery, new corals starting to recruit, small colonies starting to grow," he says. "We are also looking at coral disease, which is thought to sometimes follow in the aftermath of a bleaching event, and so we are keeping an eye out for coral disease, but it is generally a very healthy reef."
Large predator fish are abundant in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Scientists plan to catch and surgically implant acoustic tags into tiger sharks and jack fish to chart their territory from receivers on the reef.
"We will go back a couple of times a year and download data from these receivers and get a very quick picture on the use of space by these animals both within a given reef," says Randall Kosaki. "Also, and perhaps more interestingly, we are looking at whether or not they move between reefs. That impacts management very profoundly because that will tell us whether we can manage individual reefs as discrete, self-contained, self-functioning reefs or whether we actually have to manage them as a group because there is significant movement of animals between them."
Scientists will also catch a variety of fish and take DNA samples for genetic analysis before releasing them. Others will study algae and plankton to better understand the reef and what keeps it healthy.
Research on the Hi'ialakai helps bring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve one step closer to Sanctuary status. The Reserve's Acting Coordinator Aulani Wilhelm says while few may ever visit this remote marine wilderness, the huge reef has captured the imagination of people across the globe at a time when other ocean systems face serious threats. "
That's why it is really important to look at special places in the ocean," she says, "not with an eye to 'Oh, my gosh, there's a problem, we need to fix it,' but 'look at this incredible place. We need to protect it,' because we need to have eyes that look beyond this current generation." Ms. Wilhelm says there is an opportunity now to "learn from the past and hopefully take the kinds of steps that are necessary to make sure that things that have happened elsewhere on the globe don't happen here."