Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs)

Some discoveries of the October 2006 CReefs French Frigate Shoals expedition: (left to right) the deepwater shrimp Plesionika chacei (photo © Susan Middleton) may be a new record for Hawai'i; the coral Leptoseris sp22 cf incrustans is a new record for French Frigate Shoals (photo by Jim Maragos); the one-celled algae Acetabularia sp. parvula is a new record for French Frigate Shoals (NOAA photo).

Coral reefs have been dubbed the rainforests of the sea because of their extraordinary biodiversity. They are among the most diverse and biologically complex marine ecosystems in the world, yet little is known about them. Moreover, many coral reefs are threatened by anthropogenic and environmental stressors including climate change, over-harvesting, marine debris, introduction of invasive species, and other factors. Because even the broad dynamics of coral reef decline and recovery are poorly understood, it is difficult to predict the impacts of human activities on them.

Phestilla melanobrachia on Tubastrea coccinea Guam
Phestilla melanobrachia on Tubastrea coccinea Guam. Photo by Gustav Paulay, Florida Museum of Natural History

In response to severe, on-going degradation of coral reef ecosystems in many parts of the world, the U.S. National Committee of the Census of Marine Life (CoML) convened a workshop in 2004 attended by 43 coral reef experts from 32 academic institutes, government agencies, and non-governmental agencies. Their efforts resulted in a major collaboration between Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) to conduct an unprecedented global census of coral reef ecosystems, assess the biodiversity of coral reef species, and determine the vulnerability of coral reefs to human-caused stressors. On January 23, 2006, the multi-agency partnership announced the culmination of its collaborative efforts-the CoML Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) project.

CReefs is one the newest of 17 projects within the CoML, a growing global network of over 1,700 researchers in more than 73 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans. The CReefs mission is to increase tropical taxonomic expertise, conduct a taxonomically diversified global census of coral reef ecosystems, unify coral reef ecosystem information scattered throughout the world, and make the information more accessible. The project has a strong focus on understudied coral reef species including invertebrates, algae, and microbes and plans to develop innovative methods and sampling strategies that can be used universally to study these species. In addition to traditional taxonomy, researchers will use new DNA-based technologies that will enable more rapid detection of new marine species in samples of reef rock, sediments and water. CReefs will contribute data to the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS)—a central feature of the CoML and the Barcode of Life Initiative. Much existing information on reefs is scattered and difficult to access. CReefs will help bring information together through an interactive Web site for global coral reef ecosystem biodiversity. The Web site will be linked to global databases allowing easy access to data and integration of new and existing coral reef data for research, management, and conservation.

The CReefs project will endeavor to answer the following questions:

  • How many species exist on the world's coral reefs?
  • What are the prospects for maintaining species diversity on reefs subjected to various levels of human impacts?
  • How much and what kinds of information are required to achieve coral reef management goals, such as restoration and maintenance of biodiversity?
  • How much reef area must be maintained for different levels of diversity to persist?
photo of derelict fishing gear
An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS), like the one shown, is designed to mimic the reef environment and attract colonizing coral reef organisms.

During October 2006, CReefs and partner scientists conducted the project's first biodiversity survey of understudied species at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The team used 14 different sampling methods in 13 different habitats. Over 40,000 photographs were taken. Preliminary analyses of survey data indicate that approximately 1611-2151 unique morphospecies were documented. Discoveries included more than 100 probable new species and new records.

For more information about CReefs and the October 2006 CReefs expedition to French Frigate Shoals visit www.creefs.org.

Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures - A CoML Legacy

CRED, partnering with CReefs scientists, has taken the lead in the development of one particular method--Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS)--as a CoML legacy. It is anticipated that ARMS will provide a systematic, consistent and comparable method to monitor cryptic reef diversity over space and time, and that information from the ARMS will provide managers with a tool to assess this diversity along with the affects of climate change and ocean acidification, globally. [read more]