Ocean as a Lab: Line Islands Corals



My name is Stuart Sandin. I am a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I do my research in the Line Islands. This is a collection of atolls that are about a thousand miles south of Hawaii in the central Pacific Ocean. I work on the ecology of coral reefs, and I work on the conservation and restoration of this imperiled habitat. We really have two major research goals in the Line Islands. The first is to describe a baseline coral reef, to describe what a coral reef looks like in the absence of human disturbance. Our second research goal is to describe what characteristics of the coral reef are systematically changed by human activities. Most coral reefs on the planet have people living nearby to them, so the impacts of fishing, the impacts of pollution are going to be obvious. The Line Islands are an opportunity to study a few atolls that have no humans, so no local human disturbance so we can compare. My research involves a lot of time in the ocean. In order to understand a coral reef, we need to observe it. So we have people who go underwater to count fished to count algae or seaweeds, to count corals; we’re trying to understand how it’s functioning. I’ve made a lot of dives in a lot of tropical locations, but I’ve never seen reefs like I see in the Line Islands. The first time I jumped in the water on Palmyra Atoll, I was surrounded by sharks. Never before had I seen so many big animals around me; never before had I felt like a member of the food chain. Coral reefs are one of the most unique habitats that we have in the ocean. There are a tremendous number of species, and there’s a tremendous value to these reefs. Not only do they provide shoreline protection, but they also support local fishing activities. Our work in the Line Islands is showing that the structure of the coral reef actually has direct links to the function. This function can include the growth of corals, the health of corals, and the production of the fishes. We’re showing really dramatic changes of coral reef structure. Those changes are coupled to human activities. Take for instance fishing activity. If we take a reef and we completely disturb how the fish assemblage looks, we get less fish out of it. So, fishing goes down. So that means that in many places, that are currently overfished, if we were to put some sort of conservation measure, say fisheries restrictions, in the end we actually get a more robust ecosystem that not only looks nicer, but it also provides more for the local people. This alignment of conservation and affective management is one of the most valuable insights that we’ve gained. That means that we’re both on that same page. Conservation is not against fisheries. We’re moving in the same direction. And I’m very excited to see the future, where the teams that are interested in coral reefs, will work together.