First Biodiversity Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems in the Northwestern


Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San Diego

As part of the international Census of Marine Life (CoML), a team of world-renowned scientists will embark on an expedition to explore coral reef biodiversity in the largest fully protected marine area in the world-the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, with funding from NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this 23-day research cruise to the Monument's French Frigate Shoals will be the first in a series of surveys by CoML's Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) project.

Nancy Knowlton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is lead principal investigator of CReefs.

The CoML projects are designed to assess the diversity, distribution and abundance of ocean life and explain how it changes over time. This CReefs project will provide needed baseline information and foster understanding of coral reef ecosystems globally. This effort, taking place from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette, departed Honolulu on Sunday, October 8th.

According to NOAA's Russell Brainard, chief scientist for the expedition, this pioneering effort is unprecedented in the level of taxonomic expertise. While annual reef assessment and monitoring program surveys are conducted throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), those surveys have been forced to focus on the larger and better understood fish, corals, macroalgae and macroinvertebrates (lobsters, large crabs, sea urchins). This expedition is unique in focusing primarily on the more cryptic small invertebrates (tiny crabs, mollusks, sea slugs, worms and more), algae and microbes over a range of habitats at French Frigate Shoals. Although some of these smaller organisms may not be as charismatic as monk seals or colorful aquarium fish (until you look under a microscope), they form the complex tapestry that supports the existence of the larger animals, and changes in their abundance or diversity are often the first indicators of environmental impacts or changes. These groups of organisms are also the least understood and many new species records for the NWHI, as well as the discovery of new species, are likely during this expedition.

Department of Land and Natural Resources, Aquatic Resources Division Administrator Dan Polhemus, summarized the need for this type of survey in saying "we cannot properly manage what we don't know we have." Don Palawski, Refuge Manager for the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) stated that the biodiversity surveys being conducted during this expedition are "one of the priorities for conserving all the monument's natural resources."

The census is jointly supported by the Monument's three co-trustee agencies:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS);

The State of Hawaii; and

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The scientists are from such highly regarded institutions as:

Hawaii's Bishop Museum;

Florida Museum of Natural History;

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County;

Universities in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Hawaii;

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology;

The CoML International Census of Marine Microbes;

The National Park Service;

USFWS; and


Islands Fisheries Science CenterThe taxonomists, biologists specializing in the classification of these organisms, are donating their time and considerable expertise. "We plan to provide for the State of Hawaii a baseline record of the diversity of a relatively pristine area in order to have some basic working knowledge of what lives in the NWHI chain. There will never be any way to measure impact on the environment without first knowing what is there," said Joel Martin, Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies and Curator of Crustacea, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Coral reefs are highly threatened repositories of extraordinary biodiversity and therefore have been called "the rainforests of the sea," but little is known about the ocean's diversity as compared to its terrestrial counterpart.

According to Nancy Knowlton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, CReefs lead principal investigator, "We don't even know to the nearest order of magnitude the number of species living in the coral reefs around the globe. Our best guess is somewhere between 1 million and 9 million species based on comparisons with the diversity found in rainforests and a partial count of organisms living in a tropical aquarium."

Information from this effort will be posted on the CReefs website at, and the cruise can also be followed at and" target="_new"> Furthermore, the results are projected to join coral reef biological data from the NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science, which will be placed in the Pacific regional NBII Pacific Basin Information Node and global Ocean Biogeographic Information System databases by 2008.

Census of Marine Life (

More than 1,700 scientists from 73 countries are at work on the Census, designed to assess the diversity, distribution and abundance of ocean life and explain how it changes over time. The scientists, their institutions and government agencies are pooling their findings to create a comprehensive and authoritative portrait of life in the oceans today, yesterday and tomorrow.

Sea Hare (Stylocheilus longicauda), found in the Pacific, image by Gustav Paulay, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida

Support for the Census of Marine Life comes from government agencies concerned with science, environment and fisheries in a growing list of nations as well as from private foundations and companies. The Census is associated or affiliated with several intergovernmental international organizations including the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the UN Environment Programme and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas and the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. It is also affiliated with international nongovernmental organizations including the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research and the International Association of Biological Oceanography of the International Council for Science. The Census is led by an independently constituted international Scientific Steering Committee, whose members serve in their individual capacities, and a growing set of national and regional implementation committees.

CoML Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (

An unprecedented global census of coral reefs, CReefs is one of the newest of 17 projects of the Census of Marine Life. The goal of this multi-agency collaboration, led by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is to increase tropical taxonomic expertise, conduct a taxonomically diversified global census of coral reef ecosystems and improve access to and unify coral reef ecosystem information scattered throughout the world.

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