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Researchers Discover New Species of Algae at Johnston Atoll

Expedition also marks NOAA's first full deployment of closed-circuit rebreathers on a research expedition.

June 25, 2013

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Researchers on a diving expedition to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands returned from their trip with an as yet unnamed new species of deep water algae as well as the first recorded specimens of black coral from the Johnston Atoll. According to a news release put out by the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the researchers also photographed and recorded more than 20 species of fish that have never been recorded in the NWHI and 15 fish species of fish from Johnston Atoll that have never been recorded there as well.

"This represents a significant increase in the known biodiversity of Hawaiian coral reefs, and provides insights into how Johnston Atoll contributes to the diversity of our reefs in Hawai‘i,” Randall Kosaki, NOAA’s Deputy Superintendent of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and Chief Scientist of the expedition said in a statement. "It also underscores how poorly explored the deeper portions of coral reefs are, and how much remains to be discovered. This 
documentation of diversity is timely and critical, because climate change threatens much of this diversity before we even know it exists.”

Click image to enlarge
Fire Coral

Fire Coral. Photo courtesy Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

The excursion also marked the first time that NOAA fully deployed closed circuit rebreathers on a research expedition. The rebreathers recycle gases that divers breathe by removing carbon dioxide and managing oxygen levels. This enabled the divers to explore deep coral reefs at depths between 150 and 300 feet in a safer and more efficient manner.

The researchers recorded their findings from Nihoa, Mokumanamana, French Frigate Shoals and Laysan Island in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as well as the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. According to the report, the Johnston Atoll is the key "stepping stone" for certain species of central and south Pacific marine species to colonize the NWHI. Table coral for example is common throughout the tropical Pacific Ocean and at Johnston Atoll, but its distribution is limited to the French Frigate Shoals and neighboring atolls in the greater Hawaiian island chain. The fish, corals, invertebrates, and algae collected from the expedition will be analyzed for population genetics.


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Surveys of coral diseases were also conducted by scientists with the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, and found that coral reefs in the NWHI and Johnston Atolls showcased low levels of coral disease and were healthy. "The NWHI and Johnston Atoll exhibited low levels of coral disease, and represent healthy coral reef ecosystems,” said John Burns, a coral researcher at HIMB. "This is an important baseline to have as we enter an era of accelerated climate change.”

Those on the research expedition included scientists with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, the University of Hawai‘i, the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument came into being when President George W. Bush proclaimed the waters off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument on June 15, 2006. Bush achieved this using the Antiquities Act, bypassing what would have been a year of consultations and congressional input.

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