Categorized | Environment, Featured, Sci-Tech

Student Voices: From King Ferry to Kona corals

Courtney Couch prepares to lay down transect tape to measure coral disease at Keei. (Photo courtesy of Petch Manopawitr)

Courtney Couch prepares to lay down transect tape to measure coral disease at Keei. (Photo courtesy of Petch Manopawitr)

(Courtney Couch is a Ph.D candidate at Cornell University and coordinator for the Coral Disease Working Group, one of six working groups within the Coral Reef Target Research and Capacity Building Program funded by the Global Environmental Facility and the World Bank. Couch, with the assistance of The Kohala Center, will conduct coral disease surveys and measure coral reef community structure at 11 sites in West Hawaii during the next three years.)

I grew up in King Ferry, N.Y., about 20 miles north of Cornell University. So how did a person from one of the colder, landlocked regions of the United States become interested in coral reefs?

As a teenager I took a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. I was 60 feet below the ocean surface when my dive buddy frantically alerted me to a school of sharks swimming directly above us. At that moment I realized that if I could remain oblivious to a school of sharks while captivated by the coral reef beneath me, I was destined to study coral reefs.

Four years later, while exploring the same reef, I was horror-struck to observe that many of the massive colonies had been transformed into large fuzzy mounds, overgrown by algae, with only the occasional remnants of coral tissue.

Courtney Couch kayaking across Kealakekua Bay to the study site. (Photo courtesy of Petch Manopawitr)

Courtney Couch kayaking across Kealakekua Bay to the study site. (Photo courtesy of Petch Manopawitr)

This pivotal moment cemented my passion for the study of coral reef health and the processes driving these incomprehensible changes.

My interest in marine biology and coral reef ecology was further piqued by my undergraduate coursework and the diverse research opportunities that were available to me at St. Lawrence University (SLU).

One of the most influential aspects of my undergraduate career was my independent research project on the feeding biology of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus.

This introduction to scientific research, invertebrate physiology, and coral reef ecosystem processes motivated me to investigate the impact of herbivores on coral reef health and biodiversity in San Salvador, Bahamas. The scientific diving and species identification skills I learned during these baseline ecosystem health surveys of coral cover and diversity are integral components of my current research.

This independent research opportunity also gave me the chance to volunteer my time to educate children about the ecological importance of their local reefs. Our team collaborated with Bahamian elementary school teachers to design and implement interactive activities to teach students about coral reef ecosystem processes.

The overwhelming enthusiasm of the students to learn about their environment and the initial research experience on coral reef ecosystem processes inspired me to gain more field experience prior to pursuing a graduate degree.

Florida Keys and Seacamp

Three days after graduating from SLU, I moved to the Florida Keys to become a marine science instructor at Seacamp on Big Pine Key.

As an instructor, I developed lesson plans and taught marine science to children 7 to 18 years old via boat trips to various tropical ecosystems.

By providing kids with hands-on activities and knowledge of the ecology and natural history, we encouraged them to respect the surrounding ecosystems. These students motivated me to develop dynamic teaching methods and encouraged me to constantly improve my knowledge about the natural history and ecology of the Florida Keys.

Through this experience, I realized the importance of instilling an enthusiasm for marine conservation in young students—to improve the future prospects for our reefs.

The following year I conducted an environmental consulting internship at PBS& J in Miami, Florida, where I worked on a variety of projects that allowed me to improve my understanding of ecological and environmental factors that are shaping coral reefs.

The most influential of these projects were the ecosystem health assessments of the Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico and the reefs of Southeast Florida.

At the Flower Garden Banks I collaborated with a team of scientists to characterize temporal changes in coral reef community structure and coral disease prevalence. These projects highlighted the fragile state of coral reef and their susceptibility to disease and coastal pollution.

This work motivated me to return to academic research to study the effects of disease and environmental stressors on coral health.

Cornell University and Harvell laboratory

After completing this internship in 2005, I began working in the laboratory of Dr. Drew Harvell at Cornell University, first as a research assistant and now as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The Harvell laboratory conducts an exciting array of research on the ecology and evolution of coral resistance to disease, effects of climate change and eutrophication on coral reefs and coral population genetics. This research has profoundly shaped my academic interests.

I have become fascinated with the role that environmental factors play in host-pathogen interactions and disease patterns. My previous research in Dr. Harvell’s lab has focused on measuring the immune responses (Yes, corals do have simplistic immune systems!) of the Caribbean sea fan corals, Gorgonia ventalina, to a fungal disease.

I have also conducted extensive fieldwork, including an investigation of the distribution of coral disease in Mexico and research on the effects of coastal pollution on coral health in the Philippines.

Many people have asked me how I ended up conducting research in Hawaii. Upon starting my Ph.D., I was interested in developing a research project that integrated my previous experience with coral physiology, epidemiology, disease ecology, environmental stress, and conservation.

After discussing several projects with Dr. Harvell, she informed me The Kohala Center was interested in supporting a student to study the factors influencing coral health on the Island of Hawaii. They were also looking for someone to assist them with developing a water quality monitoring program that engages Citizen Scientists.

Citizen Scientists and Hawaii

This opportunity was exactly in line with my interests, so in large part I am in Hawaii thanks to support from The Kohala Center and Dr. Harvell.

Large growth anomaly (lighter colored tissue) Porites lobata (lobe coral) along West Hawaii's coast. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Couch)

Large growth anomaly (lighter colored tissue) Porites lobata (lobe coral) along West Hawaii's coast. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Couch)

During the last three years I have also been fortunate enough to act as the coordinator for the Coral Disease Working Group, which is one of six working groups within the Coral Reef Target Research and Capacity Building Program funded by the Global Environmental Facility and the World Bank (

Under the supervision of our chair Dr. Harvell, who is the working group’s chairwoman, I have been involved in a number of global coral disease projects and in the development of a coral disease handbook for reef managers. This experience has also demonstrated to me that effective coral reef conservation and management relies on communication between scientists, the general public, and managers.

The first phase of this project (2005–2009) will be wrapping up this December, after which I will step down as coordinator to focus on my research in Hawaii.

Based on extensive research that Dr. Greta Aeby from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) has conducted, we know that the Main Hawaiian Islands have a low coral disease prevalence compared with other regions in the Indo-Pacific. However, several patterns in the distribution of disease and host susceptibility are starting to emerge.

The patterns of disease vary greatly depending on which region you are studying and the conditions at that region.

For example, Dr. Misaki Takabayashi of the University of Hawaii at Hilo has found that Montipora growth anomalies (GAs) are the most prevalent disease in southeastern Hawaii.

In West Hawaii, Dr. Aeby and Steve Cotton (Hawaii DAR) found one of the more prevalent diseases is Porites (lobe and finger corals) growth anomalies.

What is causing these patterns of disease?

To address this question, I will be focusing my research primarily on the potential causes of Porites lobata (lobe coral) growth anomalies. This conspicuous disease develops as lightly colored round lumps on the colony.

While this disease generally does not spread quickly or result in major loss of coral cover, it does have a number of negative effects on coral health. Yet, not much is known about seasonal or spatial patterns of growth anomalies, and the factors causing disease in Hawaii are also unknown.

My research will address the following three objectives:

* Collaborate with reef managers to expand assessments of the temporal and spatial patterns of coral health and disease along West Hawaii, and determine the relationship between disease and ecosystem health.

I will assess the prevalence (proportion of total colonies with disease) of all coral diseases at 11 sites extending from Waikalio Bay to Puuhonua o Honaunau. This project will be conducted in collaboration with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources and several students from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

We will measure the prevalence of all coral diseases twice a year. To estimate ecosystem health, we will measure coral cover, coral diversity, community structure, and fish diversity and abundance.

*  Assess the relationship between patterns of P. lobata growth anomalies and changes in water quality.

I will measure growth anomalies patterns on selected Porites lobata colonies over time across sites that have low and high levels of freshwater input on the western coast of Hawaii. These assessments will be conducted twice to three times a year.

Then I will observe the relationship between water quality (nutrient concentration, chlorophyll a turbidity, temperature, salinity, and pH) and growth anomaly patterns.

I will be collaborating with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority to complete the water quality analyses.

* Determine whether growth anomalies may be caused by specific pathogens. This fall I will collaborate with Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber, a microbiologist from Florida International University, to apply several new molecular techniques to look for potential pathogens.

Following initial investigations, we will also look for the presence of these pathogens in the marine environment to determine whether certain microbes are transported onto corals.

By monitoring coral disease and reef health, we will be able to assess the temporal and spatial patterns of coral disease. Then by focusing additional efforts on the correlation between patterns of P. lobata growth anomalies and several water quality parameters, we will be able to better identify and target local environmental stressors.

During my visits to Hawaii, I will also continue to assist The Kohala Center with the Kahaluu Bay Project, specifically the Citizen Science program.

Since the start of this project in April, I have assisted with instrumentation, sampling protocols, and development of a training manual. Through the Citizen Science program, concerned local citizens learn how to monitor water quality.

In October 2009, I will also be assisting The Kohala Center with the HI-MOES (Hawaii Island Meaningful Outdoor Experiences for Students) program, visiting school groups and educating them about human impacts on the marine environment and the scientific method.

In January, I will assist students with development of their research projects and methodology.

I just collected my first set of data this summer and data analysis is still underway. Corroborating a previous study conducted by Dr. Aeby and Scott Cotton, I have found Porites growth anomalies are one of most prevalent diseases along West Hawaii.

I have been pleased to find that many of the reefs are still in great condition, with high coral cover and low prevalence of disease.

So what is the greatest threat to the world’s coral reefs?

This has been highly debated over the past few decades as researchers have presented data on coral reef decline, particularly in the Caribbean where several regions have experienced 50-80 percent decline in coral cover in the last three decades.

The answer is most likely a combination of a global increase in human-derived carbon dioxide emissions, which causes elevated sea surface temperature and ocean acidification, alongside local threats, such as coastal pollution, overfishing, and disease.

While corals are equipped with mechanisms to cope with pulses in nutrients and sedimentation following seasonal storms, the synergistic effects of climate change combined with chronic local disturbances have lead to dramatic reef decline worldwide.

The good news is that there are many actions that people can take to help promote the health of reefs.

Several organizations in Hawaii focus on engaging the public in monitoring and promoting reef health, including Reef Teach, The Coral Reef Alliance, Reef Check, The Nature Conservancy, Reef Watch, and many others.

I encourage you to get involved with these programs and visit this NOAA Web site for a list of 25 things you can do to help save coral reefs:

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