Notes from the field: Hawaii research trip 2019, Part 1

Each year since 2009, the Seattle Aquarium has sent a team of staff members to Hawaii to conduct reef fish and coral health research along the northwestern side of the Big Island. Get an insider’s glimpse at this year’s trip with notes and pictures from Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson.

Day 1: Monday, January 28

Today is a travel day from Seattle to the Big Island. This is our 11th consecutive year flying to Hawaii for a seven-day stay to survey, using scuba and underwater video, eight sites along the island’s northwest quarter. We’re doing this to document significant changes in fish diversity and abundance on Hawaii’s coral reefs as well as documenting coral diversity, abundance and health (i.e. bleaching), and monitoring water quality on the reefs. Our partners are University of Hawaii, Hilo (UH Hilo) and the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) Hawaii, the management authority for Hawaii reefs.

We arrived at Kona at 2pm and immediately started shopping for the research gear that we couldn’t bring with us: buckets, totes and tarps for microplastics sampling; a cylinder of oxygen for dive safety; and a projector for our outreach talks (full disclosure: we could have brought this last item but forgot it back in Seattle—there are many details to track as we prep for this annual trip and something always manages to slip through the cracks!). We finally arrived at the house where we will be staying in Puako at 7pm. It was a long day.

Sunny patio with wetsuits hanging out to dry
Our rental house in Puako.
Day 2: Tuesday, January 29

Out team for this year includes myself, Shawn Larson (I lead the trip and founded the research); Amy Olsen, Aquarium lab apecialist, who is an Aquarium scientific diver and conducts the water quality; Joel Hollander, associate curator of fish and invertebrates and associate dive safety officer, who ensures our diving in the field is safe and calls out the Hawaii fish that we see for the video; Alan Tomita, Aquarium biologist, who is an Aquarium scientific diver and a lead in Hawaii fish identification who also calls out the fish for the video; and first-time participant Chris Van Damme, an Aquarium scientific diver and camera operator.

Today was our first day of fieldwork. We picked up tanks and weights at the local dive shop, Kohala Divers. We then went back to Puako, where three of our survey sites are, and looked at the conditions to determine if we could dive any of those sites from shore. Unfortunately the waves were too big for shore diving. We then drove up to Mahukona, our northernmost site, about 30 minutes away and almost to the northern tip of the island, to see if we could dive those sites—again the waves were too big for safe entry and exit into the water.

Diving was out, but we could sample water quality, so we sampled microplastics at Mahukona and the end of the road Puako. The documentation and measuring of microplastics in these waters is important because it has been shown that corals ingest microplastics, which can lead to death and bleaching. A productive day, and we hope to dive tomorrow.

Shawn and Amy sampling microplastics at Mahukona.
Shawn and Amy sampling microplastics at Mahukona.
Day 3: Wednesday, January 30

Our second day of fieldwork. We looked again to see if our Puako sites were accessible from shore but again the waves were too big. So off we went back up north to Mahukona to meet with our friends and partners, Mark and April Johnston, who provide a boat for us to do our southern sites near Kona.

Fortunately, Mahukona was diveable and we were able to survey sites 6 and 7 and collect water samples as well. We look for nutrients including ammonia, phosphates and other chemicals that come from septic tanks and fertilizers that, if too concentrated, cause harmful algae blooms; toxics (PBDE or flame retardants, glyphosate or Roundup®); and pyrethrin, a common pesticide. All are known to harm coral reefs. We also look for fecal indicator bacteria, which shows how much fecal contamination is coming from septic systems or animals, and which can harm the reef.

It was a very productive day but we weren’t done yet! In the evening we gave a talk about our work and presented 10 years of our data to the Puako homeowners association. The attendees were very interested and asked great questions about the conservation impact of our work. Overall, we shared that the fish at many of our sites are increasing in diversity and abundance—a good sign. However, some years the coral looks worse than others, and we’ve documented some bleaching and coral die-offs. We have yet to analyze all our videos for coral species diversity and percent cover. We plan to do that this year by hiring dedicated staff to help us mine the archived video data.

Joel conducting research at Mahukona
Joel conducting research at Mahukona.


Shawn talking about the research for the Puako homeowners association.
Shawn talking about the research for the Puako homeowners association.


Look for part two of this post to learn more about our research in Hawaii—coming soon!

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