Seattle Aquarium 2017 Hawaii reef research report

2017 marks the ninth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted reef fish surveys at eight sites along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Below is a recap from the team, which included Aquarium staff members Alan Tomita (fish counter and chef), Amy Green (water quality analysis), Joel Hollander (fish counter and dive safety officer), Tim Carpenter (camera operator and equipment lead) and Shawn Larson (camera operator and trip leader).

Day 1: February 2

This is year nine of our annual Hawaii reef research where we go to Hawaii in early February to survey eight sites around the northwest side of the Big Island of Hawaii using scuba and underwater cameras. This year we received a $35,000 NOAA coral conservation grant to conduct our fish and coral surveys as well as to add a water quality component to determine the relative health of the nearshore marine environment.

Today was a travel day. We left Seattle at 10:30am and 45 degrees, and arrived in Kona at 3:30pm and 75 degrees. Nice change. The rest of the day was spent picking up water quality and diving supplies as well as food. We arrived at the home of our hosts, Dom and Marie Addario, in Puako at 6pm. We were greeted by a very large humpback whale breaching. It’s wonderful to be back!

Day 2: February 3

First full day in Hawaii. The water looked very nice and inviting with small waves and no wind. We stayed in Puako and were able to get four surveys on both sites 1 and 2, as well as collect water samples for water quality (DDT/DDE, a legacy pesticide that is persistent in the environment and toxic; pyrethrins, a popular pesticide and toxic to aquatic life; PBDE or flame retardants, used in a variety of products and toxic; glycophate, the active ingredient in Roundup and thought to be potentially toxic to coral reefs; nitrate, a nutrient found in fertilizers and in sewage; phosphate, a nutrient found in detergents; ammonia, a compound found in sewage and fertilizers; enterococcus bacteria, a bacteria indicative of sewage contamination; and microplastics that have become widespread in  the marine environment and toxic to marine life). Our sites in Puako are semi-protected which means there is no aquarium collecting of fish and fishing is limited to pole fishing only, no nets or spearfishing. These sites had many fish in the surveys—more than we have seen in previous years.

Day 3: February 4

Another great day in northwest Hawaii. Perfect conditions for reef surveys and water quality sampling. We drove up to our sites 6 and 7 in Mahukona. These sites are not protected and any type of fishing is allowed as well as aquarium collecting. The weather and water were perfect and we were able to conduct four surveys on each site and collect water quality samples. Later in the day, back down in Puako, we tried to survey site 5 which is at the end of Puako Road and a popular surf spot when there are waves. When we got there, sure enough there were surfers and the waves were too large for us to shore dive. We were done for the day.

Day 4: February 5

Today we headed south from Puako to our sites 3 and 4 off of the Old Kona airport. These two sites are also semi-protected, like Puako. Today we were treated by meeting our new boat captain, Mark Johnston, who took us to our sites in his Parker 25 boat. This was a welcome change as these sites are relatively far from shore and involve a long surface swim when diving from shore. The swell was a little big and we did have some surge conditions underwater but the fish diversity was high and there were lots of fish to survey.

Day 5: February 6

Today we are back in Puako but the swell was too big for us to access our last Puako site, site 5, from shore. We tried our best but it was too big and we risked everyone being beaten up by the waves and banged on the lava. So we went to other access points where we could get in the water to search for more sites and new fish. We found garden eels, bi-colored anthias fish and wire coral. Very nice dives.

Day 6: February 7

Today wasn’t the best day for diving: the swell was big, four to six feet,-and we couldn’t access site 5 from shore. We tried to charter a boat through Kohala Divers, where we get our scuba tanks in Kawaihae, but the boats weren’t even going out! We had to do something, so we drove 2.5 hours south to South Point and hiked to the famous “plastic beaches” and the green sand beach. We hiked for three hours and were able to document the plastic trash that has washed ashore here from the edge of the North Pacific gyre which is full of floating plastic debris and estimated to be three to four times the size of Texas. The south end of Hawaii is on the edge of the North Pacific garbage patch in the gyre. We collected a water sample to test all our water quality parameters and of course microplastics.

Day 7: February 8

Today the swell was big again but the wind had died down. We still couldn’t survey our site 5 from shore but we were able to charter a boat from Kohala Divers and get out on the water. The swell however was still very big at site 5 and we were only able to survey the deepest section of our transect. In addition, the visibility was poor with lots of stirred-up sand in the water, making seeing and counting fish difficult—the data from this day will definitely have an asterisk on it as less than ideal and not comparable to other years. In the evening we gave a talk to 30 people in the historic Puako church about our research and its findings thus far. They were a great audience and appreciated the work we do for their reef.

Day 8: February 9

Today we can’t dive as we fly tomorrow so this is called a de-gas day. But there was lots of work to do. We traveled two hours from Puako to the other side of the island to the University of Hawaii Hilo to give a talk to a marine science class about our research. We also dropped off water samples from our surveys to the researchers there to run the nutrient analyses such as ammonia, phosphate and nitrates. The class was very interested in our work and asked lots of great questions. From there we traveled another two hours back over to Kona to give a talk at the harbor for the Kona community about our work. Again, we had about 30 people who were very interested about our work and supportive of our efforts. Later that night we took our research partners with DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources) out to dinner. This is our last day in Hawaii; tomorrow we fly home. It’s been a great trip!

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