Scientists observe new habitat growth, extensive reef damage in Papahanaumokuakea

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A team of scientists from the University of Hawaii, Bishop Museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) returned from a 22-day expedition to Papahanaumokuakea on Tuesday. Given the massive area of Papahanaumokuakea, their findings ranged from positive growth in some places, to devastating damage in others.

The Good

The deep reefs appear to be thriving. The marine environment 300 feet below the surface support large apex predators, including sharks and giant uluas (trevallies), signs of a healthy ecosystem.

NOAA diver collects new algae specimens at 310 feet below the surface. Photo: NOAA

A new form of coral reef habitat was also discovered on the expedition, and entirely new species and genera (the scientific category above “species” and below “family”) of algae were also discovered. The depths of Papahanaumokuakea have yet to be comprehensively explored, and scientists believe they will continue to make new discoveries as exploration continues in the future.

The Bad

Scientists also learned the extent of damage to the reef in the French Frigate Shoals caused by Hurricane Walaka last September. What was once home to highly diverse fish communities is now rubble, barely recognizable as coral reef.

Coral reef before and after Hurricane Walaka. Picture: NOAA

Scientists were unable to determine how long it will take for the reef to recover, or if it will be able to recover at all.

The Ugly

An invasive algae was discovered at the Pearl and Hermes Atolls. These atolls are known as breeding and feeding grounds for spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals, and sea turtles. Researchers found large, thick mats of algae the size of multiple football fields smothering the existing coral habitats. The algae were not identified, but scientists are nearly certain that they are not native to the area.

UH researcher observes thick mats of invasive algae at the Pearl and Hermes atolls. Photo: NOAA

Scientists are continuing to analyze their findings in hopes to better understand proper response and management.

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