The schooner sailed Palau’s territorial waters for almost a month in search of coral samples. Led by Ryan McMinds, a doctoral student at Oregon State University, the scientific team included several returning members (Ryan among them) already very familiar with the research protocols. Tara is now heading towards the Philippines so it’s time to take stock. Interview with the head scientist.
How did the transect in Palau go?
This transect started off pretty well – we got to the Southwest of Palau and spent quite a bit of time at Helen Reef. We spent Christmas on the atoll and we got to know the rangers. After this wonderful beginning, socially, we were exploring the atoll. Helen Reef is a place that everybody is always trying to get to and never can. It’s so far away, it’s just hard to get there. Scientifically, remote places like this one are really important indicators of global processes that are affecting coral reefs.
Because these waters are not directly impacted by anthropogenic stressors for instance?
Exactly! Because you can have certain stressors on populated islands that deteriorate reefs. And if those stressors are not present because you are out at the middle of nowhere, then you can really say that what’s happening there is because of these really global events, like climate change and ocean acidification. And of course, that’s true for a lot of places that Tara has been able to visit. That’s another great thing about the expeditions.
Ryan McMinds, doctoral student at Oregon State University and chief scientist in Palau – © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expeditions Foundation
What did you observe there? How was the reef?
We found a lot of diversity. For me, one frustrating point about quickly passing through these places is that we can’t really know what they’ve always been like. I, as a coral scientist, have seen a lot of reefs, but I don’t know specifically what the reefs at Helen Atoll looked like last year or ten years ago. A lot of places that we saw, we could tell that corals were not healthy, but maybe that’s just the way it’s always been in that part of the atoll, just naturally because the environment is not good for them. So I can’t really say with certainty how they’ve changed. But there are other things that you can get into and we started seeing right away in Helen; for instance, there were a lot of small corals. In general, a lot of these reefs we’ve seen in Palau have very high coral cover and very high diversity of corals. But the coral colonies, in lots of the places we visited, are not very large. Which can often be a sign that the large colonies have died recently or relatively recently. And it’s really good that there is recruitment coming back and the corals are healthy now. But clearly something happened. And those kind of things, if they happen frequently, can really be a problem. So we started to see some of those signs.
Were the research goals achieved?
Overall, the science went very well in the Southwestern Islands: we collected everything we wanted to catch and sample. The fish team was very proud of their accomplishments (laugh). So, things just kind of went smoothly and everybody was very happy with the work that was going on.
Your transect in Palau ended with President Tommy Remengesau’s visit aboard Tara
Absolutely it was very nice to see government officials that are so engaged with science and the environment. We were speaking with Palau’s ambassador to France about the tons of floating plastic at Helen Reef, a very remote atoll. I thought about what this demonstrated about the connectivity of these islands, and of course, this is one of the main questions for Tara. But it’s really important to see how it can impact local government decisions, and I think the people here were very interested in this idea of connectivity when I brought it up.
This connectivity also applies to corals since their larvae move with currents, just as plastic waste does
The concept is that reefs are not independent. So, Palau has a very strong environmental consciousness and the government definitely cares. A lot of the local stressors, like pollution and overfishing and things like that, they really try to control. And in theory that means that the reef should be great. And obviously there are some exceptions to that. There are global stressors like climate change and ocean acidification that are still going to hurt their corals even if they do everything right here. But, the connectivity question brings to mind one other kind of exception to that idea that you can control your own corals. And that is, that corals don’t respect political boundaries.
Corals in the northern lagoon of Palau, around Arukaron Point - © Eric Rottinger / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Corals, but also climate change, ocean acidification, etc.
If, for instance, Palau suffered from a major bleaching event, even if it’s completely out of their control, and they had massive mortality of their corals, how much does their reef depend on nearby reefs? The idea is, if there is very strong connectivity, if a lot of biomass is lost here in Palau, it might be possible for the corals in Indonesia to spawn down there and send their larvae up here to help replenish the reef. We don’t really know and that’s one of the questions we are trying to ask. How much connection is there between Palau and other reefs nearby? If the reef needs to be replenished, can they be? That’s only one very small aspect of connectivity.
When you discussed this connectivity concept, President Remengesau immediately reacted
Yes, he brought up that he recognizes the need to reach out to the Indonesian government and talk with them. Politically, this is an important message! The people here were really interested in this concept because politically it matters not just to control their own reef. You have to strike these broad partnerships internationally. Global agreements are trying to fix things like climate change, but there is a kind of intermediate area between managing your reef locally and then global agreements like combating climate change. Regional-scale agreements need some focus, too. It matters to Palau if Indonesia struggles to manage the local stressors happening down there, and it matters to Palau if the reefs are suffering in Indonesia, potentially. How much does it matter? That’s the question we are asking. We really have to collaborate and have an international focus.
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