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Coral Reef Resilience in a Rare, Undisturbed Ecosystem: UCSB and Palmyra Atoll

Award Period: 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 to Friday, March 22, 2019

Award Amount: 

$350 000

Agency Name: 

Marisla

Award Number: 

1-16-058/1

PI First Name: 

Jennifer

PI last name: 

Caselle

MSI Person: 

Area/s of Research: 

Abstract: 

The Marine Science Institute at UCSB requests continued funding to remain a member of the Palmyra

Atoll Research consortium for 2016-2018 in order to continue and expand our research programs focus

on coral reef ecosystem resilience and conservation. The major outcomes will be a functioning Research

Consortium, a better scientific understanding of how healthy coral reef ecosystems function in the face of

climate change and knowledge and outreach to inform conservation practices globally.

Palmyra Atoll (PA) (6°N, 160°W), which lies in the central Pacific Ocean approximately 1700 km south of

Hawaii and close to the equator, is the northernmost atoll of the Line Islands archipelago and it is the only

remaining uninhabited atoll in the remote Line Islands chain. It is also the only undeveloped and

unpopulated “wet” atoll left in the entire tropical Pacific region. Despite past anthropogenic impacts during

the WWII era (Dawson 1959), due to its remote location and lack of a long-term resident human

population, PA represents a near-pristine coral reef environment characterized by a large biomass of top

predatory fish and high cover of calcifying reef organisms (Sandin et al. 2008). Palmyra was declared a

National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in 2001 and then became part of the Pacific Remote Islands Area Marine

National Monument (PRIAMNM) in 2009, designations that enforce its high-level conservation status.

Palmyra Atoll is a biodiversity hotspot serving as a foraging ground for endangered green and hawksbill

sea turtles and giant manta rays, a breeding ground for a number of important seabirds and it harbors a

large population of marine predators including sharks, jacks and snappers. However, while protected

from most local impacts such as fishing and local pollution, PA is not immune to larger, global threats

such as increasing sea temperature and ocean acidification. In fact, in the summer and fall of 2015, coral

reefs on Palmyra showed signs of bleaching and mortality due extremely warm water caused by a large

El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The recent ENSO has been projected to be the largest in recorded history and has caused what many

scientists are calling the ‘third global mass coral bleaching event’. Previous anecdotal information

Marisla Foundation - Environment Application--Existing Applicant - 01/08/2016 14:07:54 ET

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indicated that coral reefs of PA show a high level of resilience to ENSO warming, perhaps due to the low

levels of local anthropogenic stressors. However, the last large ENSO was in 1997-98, prior to the

establishment of PARC, and so the effects remain unstudied at PA. We have a unique opportunity over

the next several years to study the effects of ENSO on corals and fishes of Palmyra, given the large

amount of data and natural history knowledge that we have acquired prior to this disturbance. Thus,

much of our research agenda for this grant period will focus on understanding the effects of ENSO and

the drivers of resilience. This will be the first time that detailed research has been conducted on a pristine

coral reef in the face of a strong climate driven effect. Palmyra Atoll offers an unprecedented ability to

learn how unimpaired marine ecosystems function, and in so doing, provide advice on conservation and

restoration efforts in other more degraded systems.

This proposal seeks continued funding for:

1) Research, travel funds and continued membership in PARC for UCSB Marine Science Institute

scientists and collaborators to conduct cutting-edge research on predator-prey dynamics, herbivory and

coral reef resilience in the context of a large El Nino-Southern Oscillation,

2) Funding for the PARC director for maintaining the research consortium that is critical to science and

outreach at Palmyra Atoll.