Notes from the science team

People from the outer islands working collaboratively with scientists to enhance management and knowledge of coral reefs and associated resources.

The science and youth teams are both back in the states after an incredibly productive visit to Ulithi this summer. Despite the extensive destruction from Typhoon Maysak (a category 5 that hit Easter weekend 2015), we were generously welcomed with food, cheer, and hard work. The collaborative nature of OPOR’s work has never been more evident than it was these past few weeks. Also, OPOR was honored this year to have been awarded Flag #112 from the Explorers Club, NYC.  The flag accompanied us to all the islands, and a flag expedition report will be forthcoming!

The Explorers Club flag with the communities of Falalop

We sampled 31 sites across Ulithi this summer. In addition to the work we do every summer (counting fish and collecting data to assess coral cover and algae cover), we also conducted a study on fragmentation of Montipora (the cabbage coral found near many islands) in an attempt to understand how this weedy species was impacted by Typhoon Maysak. We also tested a Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) design, which will help us count fish at deeper sites and sites without human presence.

We found that some of the reefs were clearly affected by Typhoon Maysak, although different parts of the atoll were impacted in different ways. The typhoon broke many big branching corals, which are important to the reefs because they provide habitat for fish and dissipate wave energy. It also destroyed relatively large areas of the brittle Montipora coral, although we see regrowth in most places. Here is a quick summary of what we found at each island:

  • Asor. We found significant coral breakage at the sites within the lagoon. Matalyoch was the least affected, but the areas dominated by the Montipora cabbage coral (which is brittle and breaks easily) were heavily damaged. The area known of as Lamoor was heavily damaged – branching as well as massive corals were broken and whole colonies were removed. Lots of algal growth at this site.
  • Mog Mog. We saw similar damages at the sites in front of the island, but with more algae and cyanobacteria, which is probably due to more nutrients from land, less water flow, higher temperatures, or some combination of these. The reefs at Laam, Piglelel, and Pig showed minimal damage to coral, and signs of recovery.
  • Federai. The Montipora-dominated sites in the lagoon showed moderate damage, with some rubble fields, algae, and cyanobacteria, but it was not as severe as at Mog Mog and Asor. The western facing reefs at Yealil showed the least damage. These reefs show some of the highest coral cover and species diversity rates, both before and after the typhoon.
  • Falalop. There was extensive damage to the reefs in front of the men’s house, though not as extensive as in Asor and Mog Mog. The Montipora-dominated reefs were heavily damaged, with significant algal and cyanobacterial mats growing. We did see evidence that the coral (mainly Montipora) was starting to regrow. The reefs that were farther to the east and west of the men’s house, which had less Montipora before the typhoon, also had less damage to the corals. But, we also saw extensive evidence of damage to the larger branching corals.
  • Geelob and Loosiyep had little evidence of damage (except to some of the larger branching corals), and had a high percent cover of crustose coralline algae (which cements the reef together and provides places for coral recruits to settle and grow). This is a sign of a healthy reef!

Overall, there is clear evidence of damage when we compare many of the reefs to how they looked before the typhoon. Damage was particularly evident near villages, which are important fishing areas (in close proximity to where people live). We are in the process of analyzing all the data we collected, and will update you with a link to the full report when it’s ready.

Broken corals with algae and cyanobacteria growth

Broken corals being overgrown with algae and cyanobacteria

The communities seem energized and encouraged by the management programs they’ve enacted, which everyone – women, men, fishermen, kids, and leaders – says is working. They also say the management programs have brought their leadership together, and our observations echo this.

In addition to helping us with the reef surveys, our student teams worked together on a number of projects and creative community building. They will be writing some posts for the blog to share their experiences with all of you.

We look forward to sharing our results with the communities and others who may use them to advance marine resource management in the Outer Islands. Thanks for helping make this an awesome experience and a very productive sampling period!