Coral Reef Resilience in a Rare, Undisturbed Ecosystem: UCSB and Palmyra Atoll 2020-2022

Award Period
Award Amount
Agency Name
Marsla Foundation (Frmly Homeland Foundation)
Award Number
PI First Name
PI Last Name
MSI People
Area/s of Research
Climate Change Science
Ecology and Evolution
Marine Conservation, Policy and Education

The Marine Science Institute at University of California Santa Barbara requests continued funding to maintain research collaborations with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (PANWR). Our goal is that high-quality scientific research and academic rigor are applied to TNC's conservation programs and FWS's management for Palmyra. Our research objectives are geared towards applied scientific approaches to conservation/ restoration - with information gained at Palmyra applied locally as well as to more impacted reef systems globally. To this end, we aim to continue close collaborations with colleagues in Moorea, French Polynesia and reef managers worldwide.

*State the problem and need that this project/program will address.

TNC's newly outlined pillars of conservation, science, and restoration map out an aggressive strategy for Palmyra to become a global model of reef resilience, rainforest and island conservation, and sustainable fishing practices. However, this path relies heavily on collaboration with scientific patterns such as those at UCSB and the lab of Dr. Jenn Caselle. As long-standing collaborators with extensive history in Palmyra (~20 years), we have designed and initiated numerous experiments and projects focused on these objectives.

Continued support will ensure that scientific efforts at Palmyra will be at the highest level and outcomes will be published and publicly available.

*Project outcomes. Defined as impacts or changes that will be achieved in 1-5 years as a result of your (and partner) efforts. These may include a policy, human behavior or activity, or state of ecosystem or species.

Our research for the next 3 years at PANWR has 3 foci: 1) animal movement and nutrient redistribution; 2) herbivory and coral reef resilience; and 3) sustainable fishing practices. All of our research aims to provide actionable advice to reef managers to improve coral reef health, resilience and fisheries management practices at Palmyra and globally in the face of climate and small-scale human stressors. The outcome will be better managed coral reefs.

  1. Coral reefs are paradigmatic in that they harbor remarkable levels of diversity and biomass despite existing in nutrient poor environments. Recent research (including our own) has shown that fish-derived nutrients (i.e. fish pee) provide significant inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus that support high productivity on coral reefs. The aggregation and movement patterns of fishes can concentrate and redistribute these important nutrients within and among reef zones, yet, these pathways are grossly understudied. Our extensive dataset on animal movements includes more than a dozen species that represent numerous trophic groups across a range of movement patterns. In this funding period we aim to augment these movement data and synthesize existing data in order to develop an island-wide movement model of fish derived nutrient pathways, with a particular focus on nutrient subsidies across habitats and hotspots due to fish aggregations. This project will potentially 'bust' the global paradigm of how healthy coral reefs exist in nutrient-depleted oceans and add an under-appreciated motivation for rebuilding fish populations on degraded reefs.
  2. On coral reefs, herbivores perform the critical function of removing algae that otherwise compete with corals for space, light, and nutrients. Overfished reefs are transitioning to dominance by algae worldwide, particularly after disturbance events. Our work in Palmyra aims to understand the role of large herbivores in coral reef recovery and resilience, with a focus on the fine-scale and large-scale mechanisms that underpin reef health. During this funding period we will maintain our large-scale herbivore exclusion experiment (initiated in 2018) and conduct complementary small-scale experiments to test how key ecological process (e.g. coral predation, coral recruitment) contribute to community reassembly. Our ongoing work impacts reefs globally by providing reef managers and stakeholders with evidence-based results of the importance of large, intact herbivore communities that are contextualized by similar, concurrent work being done on the more impacted reefs of Moorea.
  3. In 2018, in collaboration with TNC and building on our long history at Palmyra, we initiated a markrecapture study employing a small-scale, catch-and-release recreational fishery to assess the stock size and survival rates for fish species that utilize Palmyra's extensive shallow water and lagoon habitats. This project is one in our portfolio that most directly informs FWS managers, in fact, they have requested these data and analyses to better inform a compatibility determination on sport fishing at Palmyra. The overarching goal of this project goes beyond Palmyra and aims to provide insight for managers worldwide on best practices for successfully managing similar fisheries, as well as demonstrating the long-term economic value associated with healthy, intact fish communities.

*Project outputs. Defined as the direct results of short-term (1-2 years) activities undertaken with the Marisla Foundation grant. These include events, products, or services you create over the duration of the grant period.

Examples include workshops/trainings, reports, meetings with key decision- makers, stakeholder engagements, etc.

Our outputs from this program fall into two categories: programmatic successes for the Palmyra Atoll research station and its collaborators, and scientific successes related to conservation and management of coral reefs. Programmatic successes at the end of this funding period will include the well-functioning field station that supports the collaborative scientific/conservation efforts at Palmyra. This includes frequent working groups with TNC scientists to design and implement scientific studies and hypothesis testing around new and ongoing conservation programs at Palmyra. Scientifically, success will be measured by the extent that our scientific results are published and used to inform conservation and management of Palmyra and other coral reef system worldwide. Additionally, in this funding period we will maintain collaborations and host working groups with colleagues in Moorea to continue developing and conducting comparative experiments in both impacted and unimpacted systems.

*Indicators of progress toward stated outcomes. Defined as quantitative or qualitative measures toward achieving an outcome (e.g., increased biodiversity, increased species, decrease in illegal activity, area protected, reduction of exposure to toxins, etc.).


A. Number and impact of scientific papers,

B. Presentations at national/international conferences,


C. Research station and resources support high-quality research.

D. Collaborations with TNC, USFWS, and other PARC scientists lead to cross-ecosystem studies at Palmyra,

E. Collaborative projects at Moorea/Tetiaroa lead to new insights for coral reef resilience,

Resource Management:

F. Stock assessment metrics are used by USFWS in regulatory documents,

G. UCSB scientists participate in USFWS management plan development and TNC led conservation workshops,

H. Science informs TNC lagoon-restoration project at Palmyra,


I. Successful grant proposals,

J. Successful donor trips to Palmyra.

*List core project/program partners and describe roles (List a Maximum of 5 Partners)

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) - TNC purchased the atoll in 2000 and, with the help of PARC, built the necessary on-island infrastructure. TNC is currently responsible for day to day logistics and staffing on the station. TNC recently refined its scientific goals for Palmyra and developed CARL (Climate Adaptation + Resilience Laboratory) to study Palmyra's unique ecosystem in the context of ongoing conservation and restoration efforts.

US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) - USFWS manages Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, including the majority of emergent land and all waters extending out 12 nautical miles. USFWS management focuses on preventing/removing invasive flora and fauna, removal of wreckage associated with negative impacts to the ecosystem, permitting recreational visitors to the refuge, and permitting all scientific work.

Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research Program (MCR-LTER) - The Caselle Lab closely collaborates with Dr. Deron Burkepile and Dr. Thomas Adam of the UCSB Moorea Coral Reef LTER. Current work includes collaborative reef resilience experiments in Moorea and Palmyra and within the current funding period we aim to develop an island-wide movement model for fish derived nutrient redistribution pathways across various habitats.

*Description of potential challenges (internal or external) that your organization may encounter when implementing this project/program and potential strategies for overcoming them.

At times it can be challenging to apply scientific lessons learned from Palmyra to other, more-impacted systems across the world due to its remote and largely undisturbed setting. While ecological knowledge gained in undisturbed systems has intrinsic value, we strive to produce research that can inform management practices and improve reef health more broadly. To do this we take advantage of studying the limited disturbances that exist at Palmyra (our experiment studying recovery after a shipwreck and invasive species) and by contextualizing our results by conducting parallel research with collaborators working in an impacted system (partnerships within the Moorea LTER).

*Qualifications of key personnel

Qualifications of key personnel

Lead - Dr. Jenn Caselle is a Research Professor at Marine Science Institute, UCSB (BS U.C. Berkeley, Ph.D. U.C. Santa Barbara). Research specialties include: Community ecology and biogeography of coral reefs, larval dispersal and recruitment especially of reef fishes, movement patterns of commercially and ecologically important marine organisms using telemetry, design and analysis of large scale monitoring programs, and design and monitoring of marine protected areas. Dr. Caselle has been working at Palmyra Atoll since 2001 and has been the Director of PARC since 2012.

Dr. Steve Gaines is a Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology and Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Sciences and Management, UCSB (BS UC Irvine, Ph.D. Oregon State University). Research interests include: novel solutions to global fisheries issues, marine ecology, biostatistics, population dynamics of open populations, interactions between ocean physics and larval dispersal, and responses of communities to climate change.

Ms. Kathryn Davis Kohen is a research specialist in the Marine Science Institute at UCSB (BS and MA U.C. Santa Barbara) and has been conducting research in Palmyra for the past seven years. Ms. Davis leads the herbivory research and also serves as the geospatial analyst on all projects.

Mr. Peter Carlson is a research specialist in the Marine Science Institute at UCSB (BS and MA U.C. Santa Barbara) and completed his masters work in Palmyra on the movement and feeding patterns of large herbivores. Mr. Carlson currently leads our mark recapture study and advises on the development of a recreational fishery at Palmyra.