Faculty concert on Tuesday, October 23, at 8 p.m. the Tsai Performance Center, featuring the world premiere of Dialogues III, Op. 37

Vol. V No. 10   ·   19 October 2001  


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BU prof and alum pioneer in coral reef ecology studies

By Hope Green

Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the rain forests of the sea. Like their aboveground counterparts, reefs are home to thousands of rare species, may contain potentially lifesaving pharmaceutical substances -- and are in danger of being wiped out by humans.

Multiple species of coral make up this patch-reef formation, a typical structure at Johnston Atoll. Photo by Phillip Lobel  

Many coral reefs reside in close proximity to American military bases, and in recent years the U.S. Department of Defense has played an increasing role in reef conservation efforts. One of the military's top consultants in this field is affiliated with the Boston University Marine Program: ichthyologist Phillip Lobel, a CAS associate professor of biology. His wife, ecotoxicologist and BU Marine Program alumna Lisa Kerr (GRS'97), is a member of his research team.

Between February and June, Lobel and Kerr can be found at their main study site: Johnston Atoll, a coral reef in the central Pacific Ocean, 825 miles southwest of Hawaii. There Lobel directs the Department of Defense's Pacific Equatorial Atoll Research Laboratory.

The atoll forms a protective lagoon around Johnston Island, where a U.S. military base has operated since the 1930s. The local marine life appears to be thriving, Lobel says, and any impact on sea life from chemical spills or solid objects in the water has been confined to small areas. These factors make Johnston Island an ideal site for controlled experiments.

"By working with the U.S. military in places like Johnston Island," he says, "we have access to some of the most protected, pristine habitats left in the world."

  The Indo-Pacific sergeant-major damselfish (Abudefduf vaigiensis).
Photos by Phillip Lobel

With funding from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Coast Guard, Lobel and Kerr conduct basic scientific research and environmental impact studies on reef ecosystems. Their expertise influences military decisions involving millions of taxpayer dollars, such as whether to clean up a hazardous waste site or conduct a dredging project near an ancient coral formation.

As part of the military's public outreach programs, Lobel also has met with conservationists in Asia, the Philippines, and the Caribbean to advise civilian efforts at reef protection. In some countries, he says, the chief danger to the reefs is not pollution, but dynamite explosions, which fishermen set off to stun the fish and increase their catch.

The Army initially hired Lobel in 1983 as part of a project to build a chemical weapons incinerator on Johnston Island. His role was to assess preexisting environmental conditions to determine what, if any, harmful effects to look for once the incinerator started operating in 1990.

"When the Army built this plant," Lobel says, "they came in with this new philosophy that they wanted to do everything right environmentally, and would spare no expense in building pollution abatement systems. In fact, it's the world's first environmentally clean toxic incinerator."

Yellowfin goatfish (Mulloidichthys vanicolensis). The fish use their barbels to smell invertebrates beneath the sand.  

The researchers found virtually no impact on wildlife once the plant was up and running. But the military also wanted to know what previous activities might have harmed the atoll. Chemical munitions from U.S. military bases around the world, including the defoliant Agent Orange, had been brought to Johnston Island and stockpiled there since 1971. The island was the site of high-altitude nuclear testing in the 1960s, and long before any environmental laws were passed, military personnel would dump all manner of junk in the lagoon, such as old batteries, spent ammunition, and electrical transformers filled with PCBs.

"A lot of this was done before society understood it was bad to dump things in the water," Lobel says. Over the years he and his team have been examining the area's marine life to see if they can establish links between individual toxic substances and specific biological problems. Kerr's research, for instance, focuses on the relationship between pollution and abnormal development in fish embryos.

  Every spring, grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) aggregate in the lagoon at Johnston Atoll.

As part of the monitoring program, Lobel's group has conducted basic research on fish behavior and ecology. By understanding the conditions fish require for their life cycle and what factors disrupt that process, Lobel says, he can advise the military when it is considering a new deep-water mooring, dredging, or cleanup project at an atoll.

"We go from the scientific to the very practical," he says, "and the lessons we learn in our military research are directly translatable elsewhere."
Lobel has taken on a variety of conservation-related studies at Johnston Atoll. With military financing, he has been able to pursue one of his main interests: fish acoustics. Fish of many species produce distinct sounds as they spawn, so he is developing acoustic monitoring technology to map where and when they spawn each year. Lobel also conducts ongoing studies of sharks in the lagoon. He has worked with the base commander and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement restrictions on shark fishing and shell collecting.

Aerial view of the U.S. military base at Johnston Island, showing the airstrip.  

Recently Lobel and Kerr completed work on the Department of Defense's Coral Reef Protection Implementation Plan, which will be distributed to coastal military bases throughout the world. The military prepared the 90-page document in response to a 1998 executive order by President Clinton, which required all cabinet-level departments to come up with a policy for protecting coral reefs under their control.

"Once we develop new technologies and approaches to coral reef protection," Lobel says, "we can share these with other nations to help them better preserve their natural resources."


19 October 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations