Researchers monitor reefs

KOLOA — Most of the coral around Hawaii hasn’t changed dramatically, according to initial reports from researchers aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s ship, Hi’ialakai.

“We haven’t been to every single corner of all the islands, but at the sites we’ve been to, I haven’t seen any evidence of widespread coral mortality,” said Bernardo Vargas-Angel current Chief Scientist aboard the vessel.

The last time the NOAA ship conducted research in the area was in 2013.

Hi’ialakai has already made it to most of Kauai, though Vargas-Angel said researchers missed the North Shore because of the presence and timing of Tropical Storm Darby.

The west, south and east portions of Kauai’s nearshore waters have fared well, according to researchers.

“I don’t think we saw anything dramatically different from what we saw three years ago,” Vargas-Angel said. “Likely some coral was bleached, but for the most part there was no dramatic change.”

Vargas-Angel said that three years ago, he was able to study an outbreak of black band coral disease observed on the North Shore by Hanalei marine biologist Terry Lilley.

“Due to our weather conditions we weren’t able to access north Kauai and the area of Hanalei and follow up on previous studies on the coral disease outbreak in that area,” Vargas-Angel said.

He said though coral bleaching and black band disease are two different things, both aspects of coral health are of interest to scientists.

Because the mission is propelled by a fixed number of resources and staff members, as well as being on a tight schedule, researchers probably won’t be able to go back to the places they missed.

“It’s a big effort and we give it the best try,” Vargas-Angel said. “Resources, itinerary, and weather conditions dictate the extent of the work we can accomplish.”

Hi’ialakai is at port in Honolulu, preparing for a Friday departure on the next leg of the 75-day NOAA research cruise, which will encompass Oahu and the Big Island.

The cruise began July 12.

The mission is the sixth that the federal entity has conducted in Hawaiian waters since 2000 and is part of a long-term effort to monitor the coral reefs of the West Pacific islands.

Those islands are split up into sections and researchers rotate through those sections, revisiting the areas every three years.

The last time the reef monitoring study was in Hawaiian waters was just before the bleaching events of 2014 and 2015.

“One of the highest priority objectives of this mission is to have a better assessment of the consequences of the bleaching events in past years,” Vargas-Angel said.

The data collected this year will be compared to the information collected in 2013 to determine the overall picture of the coral’s response to the two bleaching events.

Final opinions on the effect will be handed down once this year’s data is compiled.

“This will be our first real look at those major coral events and the net impacts those two bleaching events had on coral cover,” said Rusty Brainard, chief of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program.

Brainard said the goal is to monitor the coral reefs concentrating on three major areas: coral, fish and climate change.

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