The project was undertaken to assess the reef health, status, fisheries potential, conservation value and biodiversity of two atolls in the Marshall Islands: Rongelap and Bikini. The data produced represent a first comprehensive reference of reef status at national and international level and are used to recommend national marine conservation plans for Rongelap and Bikini. This report focuses on Rongelap Atoll. There is much interest from the local Government for the management of marine resources and the plans to re-inhabit the islands are imminent. The work carried out on the expedition in Rongelap was for the Rongelap Atoll Local Government (RALGov) to assess their marine resources, on which to base new eco-tourism and sport diving and fishing ventures. The project was also successful in training local people to practices of reef assessment and monitoring techniques for establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). The trained people have the skills, knowledge and interest necessary to continue this work in the future. The project is also promoting reef conservation among the population through newspaper and journal articles and presentations. During this project, a multidisciplinary team of scientists and trained volunteers carried out surveys on the coral reef ecosystem. The surveys included several levels of detail, ranging from species level biodiversity surveys to volunteer-based reef status surveys. The team assessed for each site
(a) the species diversity for fishes and corals,
(b) quantitative ecological information including abundance and biomass of fishes, coral cover and substratum, and algae cover and diversity, and
(c) community-level reef status information collected by the Reef Check method. In addition, the team set up and conducted a detailed survey of two permanent transects for future monitoring.
The project team surveyed 12 sites around Rongelap Island from shore and a further 2 sites on other islands west of Rongelap Island. The results show that this area could be divided into 5 biogeographical zones, encompassing lagoon sites, outer reef sites and passes. The outer reef zone showed the highest coral cover and species richness. A high proportion of food fishes was also found in these zones, although a different suite of fish species was abundant and large inside the lagoon. High fish biomass, high percentages of coral cover and a total species number of 361 fishes and 170 corals indicated that the reefs around Rongelap Island are outstandingly pristine and
healthy. Considering the small size of the area surveyed, it is exemplary that the reef supported more than two thirds of all fishes known from the Marshall Islands.
This report gives recommendations and scientific background to support the establishment of new MPAs and community-based management practices. Once these MPAs are approved, they will represent the first example of coral reef conservation in the RMI. This work has also been the first example of collaborative monitoring between the government, individuals and local NGOs and represented the first effort towards the participation into a regional network of research, monitoring and management of reefs and their resources.