Reef monitoring is a vital tool that we have at our disposal. Not only does it allow us to see what species we have on our reef communities but the health of these communities can tell us important things about the quality of the water surrounding our islands. This can also give us leads on how to improve our resource management strategies.
Every reef, just like every person, looks a little different. Certain species have different roles and require different conditions to live. Long term monitoring of our reefs allows us to get a different idea of what species are found on our different reefs. When we find species that haven’t been on our reefs before or are there at the wrong time of year, we know that we need to divert more of our resources to figuring out what caused this change and determine if this is a natural change or if it’s due to something caused by humans.
Marine monitoring is in charge of monitoring the health of the marine ecosystems across the Northern Mariana Islands. We are like the doctors of the ocean. We do check-ups on all the habitats within the marine ecosystems – reef flat, lagoon, seagrass.
We have sites across different islands and different habitats. We look at the different things that comprise our coral reef ecosystems, which are the corals themselves, the fish around the corals, the algae that share the space with the corals and also the invertebrates that live there. When we go out and check the fish abundances or the amount of corals in a certain reef, it lets us know how this reef is doing over time. As we revisit each site every year, we see changes and relate them to different factors we find, whether it be caused by humans or natural disturbances.
In many areas around CNMI, reef flats are the first marine environment encountered next to dry land. Reef flats are the shallow areas between the shoreline and the breaking waves on the reef crest. In some areas, such as Lau Lau Bay, sediment and nutrient pollution are washing from shore and have caused coral habitat to change to an environment dominated by fleshy algae. In other areas, the relatively natural coastline has allowed the growth of a coral rich environment.
Monthly monitoring of the benthic, reef-flat community allows us to document annual cycles in macroalgae growth. It is known that "brown" runoff washes into the bay during storm events, providing excess nutrients to the nearshore ecosystem, and favorable conditions for certain macroalgae to grow and persist. The Coastal Resources Management and Division of Environmental Quality have recently started several programs that will help reduce the amount of runoff and "clean" the watershed. Our reef flat monitoring data will help to evaluate and document the hopefully positive results of their management efforts