On Friday 6 October, a team of scientists embarked on an expedition to explore coral reef biodiversity in the recently designated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, the largest marine protected area in the world. The expedition is being led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center with funding from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

During the 23-day expedition the Monument’s French Frigate Shoals will be the first in a series of surveys by the Census of Marine Life’s (CoML) Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) project, which have been designed to assess the diversity, distribution, and abundance of ocean life and how it changes over time. This projects will provide baseline data for the world’s coral reef ecosystems. The first expedition is taking place on the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette that departed from Honolulu’s Snug Harbor.

This expedition is the first of its kind in that it will focus on a broader range of species, both macro and micro, than previous reef assessment and monitoring surveys. Much data is needed for smaller organisms because they are an important component of the complex ecosystem that supports the larger animals. Changes in their abundance or diversity are often the first indicators of environmental impacts or changes. Smaller organisms are also the least understood. Scientists expect to collect data and identify a number of new species during the 3-week expedition.

According to the COML, the taxonomists and biologists on the expedition are donating their time and expertise. “We plan to provide for the State of Hawaii a baseline record of the diversity of a relatively pristine area in order to have some basic working knowledge of what lives in the NWHI chain. There will never be any way to measure impact on the environment without first knowing what is there” said Dr. Joel Martin, Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies and Curator of Crustacea, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Dr. Nancy Knowlton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is the project’s principal investigator who said, “We don’t even know to the nearest order of magnitude the number of species living in the coral reefs around the globe. Our best guess is somewhere between 1 and 9 million species based on comparisons with the diversity found in rainforests and a partial count of organisms living in a tropical aquarium.”

Additional information can be found at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov.

Data collected will be integrated with coral reef data from the NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science, which will be placed in the Pacific regional NBII Pacific Basin Information Node and global Ocean Biogeographic Information System databases by 2008.