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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/interviews/Dr. Jim Maragos


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Dr. Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuges Division
Posted by Mark Heckman

Dr. Jim Maragos.Bio brief: Dr. Maragos completed his Ph.D in Oceanography at the University of Hawai‘i in 1972. He did his post doctoral work on coral reefs at the University in 1973-1974. Dr. Maragos spent the next 15 years, traveling and working throughout the Pacific as the head of the environmental office, Pacific Ocean Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He became the chief scientist for the Pacific Region for the Nature Conservancy from 1991 to 1993, a Senior Fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu until 1999. He is now a Coral Reef Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dr. Maragos is one of the few experts on atoll ecology in the world.

You are often noted as one of the primary forces behind the NOWRAMP Expedition in 2000, which helped get the ball rolling. What caused you to get involved?

"Well, first of all, it was certainly not just me, many other folks were pivotal as well. Rusty Brainard of the National Marine Fisheries Service has been incredibly important, working with us side by side. And we couldn't have done it without the support of a variety of agencies and funding sources."

[In 2000 there were eight agencies and organizations involved, the Hawai‘i Coral Reef Initiative/ University of Hawai`i, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and National Ocean Service, Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Oceanic Institute, Bishop Museum, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.]

"At that time, I was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Except for Kure, we have responsibility for 9 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as part of the Hawaiian Islands and Midway National Wildlife Refuges, which stretch over 900 miles and cover resources to 10 fathoms for most of the reefs and islands, 20 fathoms for Necker Island and all reefs at Midway. This is a vast amount of territory, and except for a few efforts over the years, no broad surveys have been done during the past two decades. These expeditions allow us to understand areas that have not been previously examined, to stimulate further research and funding, and to assist in effective management. We need to know what we have to work with."

Tell us about that and the use of REAs or Rapid Ecological Assessments. (Note - REAs involve quick inventories of plants, animals on reefs or land habitats. Teams collect data at 3 sites a day, trying to cover as much new territory as possible with reasonable accuracy and include comparable rapid surveys of cultural resources (shipwrecks, archeological sites, etc.)

Coral photo quadrat sampling."Well, rapid ecological assessments are not new. We began using them since the 80's in the main Hawaiian Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and American Samoa. Procedures can vary according to what is needed. When we did REAs for Palau, it was used to identify candidates for the creation of a system of protected areas, since only one existed at the time. Education was also a key component. For the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the protection is largely there, but we need more information for effective direction of further research and management.

"REAs have also changed with the advent of new technology. In the early years, we were creating atlases and inventory reports. We did not have the computers, GPS (Global Positioning System), digital videos, and so on that we have now. We used aerial photos, in-water documentation and the best maps we could find to create detailed atlases of the resources. In the Marshalls for instance, we found that maps made for World War II were very detailed and useful.

"Now we have 2000 high resolution satellite images, including multi-spectral imagery. Each type of reef reflects light differently and satellites can pick this up. This year we have a team (Daria Siliciano and Marjo Vierros) who are doing this. We have GPS information that allows us to be more accurate in mapping; it can be entered on GIS (Geographical Information System) software, to link information with precise locations of field study sites. This all gets better each year as new technology becomes available.

"For the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the rapid ecological assessments are critical. Seventy percent of all the coral reefs in the United States are here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and five times as much as in the main Hawaiian Islands. We need to evaluate what the problems or issues are here."

Do some areas need more work than others?

"Some have barely been looked at. Atolls like French Frigate Shoals have the highest diversity of corals. Should this get special attention? Are alien species already in place at various sites or are reefs still pristine? What sites need the most protection from alien species? If we do not look we will not know. Rapid ecological assessments help with all of these questions."

How is this trip different for you that the 2000 voyage?

"First of all, we have a new partner this year. The federal Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosytem Reserve was created in 2000 by presidential executive order and the managers for the Reserve have an important role and are sponsoring much of the present expedition.

"The REAs result in collecting more in situ (on site) information. We have an additional person for the algal team and but still have only one coral person on each team. And we are surveying the reef areas we missed the first time. There are many more areas to do. And, of course, we have the multi-spectral and satellite imaging. One of my team (Daria) is doing coral cores to provide a historical perspective on local growth rates and temperatures. And we are setting up permanent transects or resurveying transects on all 10 islands.

"A number of 50-meter long permanent transects allow us to collect different information than collected by the REAs. We set up stainless steel stakes every five meters so that we can relocate the transects in future years and begin to monitor change over time, using corals as our key indicators. We can get back to the exact same place, the same coral heads, and track their health over a range of years."

How did you get involved in atoll ecology?

"Spending time in the ocean when I was a kid. In high school I had a chance to read about soil and forest conservation in the US and was concerned about their loss over the previous century. And I lived in Long Beach, California, so the ocean was there. I read Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us. That influenced me. Then in college, I read a pamphlet on atolls that one of my professors at UCLA wrote, and it fascinated me. Now here I am, nearly 40 years later, having studied 40 - 50 atolls and I feel priviledged to be knowledgeable about them."

What is important to you?

"In the late 60's I was one of the people doing research on Kaneohe Bay, on Oahu, Hawai‘i. At that time it had a sewage outfall pipe emptying into the shallow southern bay and it was a mess. Our research helped get that outfall removed and help bring the bay back to a more healthy condition. I feel fortunate to have been to be involved in that.

"It seems to me that over the last 500 hundred years we have lost track of our connections to the natural world. Bob Johannes, a great scientist, encouraged me to apply research to help to solve real problems, not just add a bit of esoteric information. We are on earth just a short time. I think this is the direction we all need to follow to some degree. We are all part of the Earth's ecosystem."

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