Tauna has worked with NOAA since 2010, when she joined the Office of Habitat Conservation as a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. She currently represents NOAA Fisheries in the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. The Coral Reef Conservation Program is a partnership among NOAA offices to understand and conserve coral reef ecosystems.
Can you tell us about a project related to habitat that you’re currently working on or that you enjoyed?
Right now, I’m working with the Caribbean Fishery Management Council to develop their first fishery ecosystem management plan, which will help them manage their fisheries more holistically. I’m assessing the risks and drivers that affect fisheries and essential fish habitat in the U.S. Caribbean. From there, NOAA and partners can work with the Council to develop objectives and strategies to address those risks.
The U.S. Caribbean has complex multi-species fisheries. It’s not feasible to do assessments by individual species because the Council manages dozens of them. All of these species use a few different key habitats. So we are looking at risks to fisheries for each habitat type and identifying and focusing on major long-term threats. These threats include coral bleaching, land-based pollution, hurricanes, need for education surrounding environmental issues, and other problems related to climate change.
What habitat work has been especially successful or inspiring to you?
Mission: Iconic Reefs in the Florida Keys. I found it really impressive that a group of people created a plan to restore seven important reefs in the Keys back to historic levels of coral cover. NOAA and partners figured out how much it would cost, determined how much effort it would take, and built a lot of momentum in a short period of time. Once they developed the plan, it got a lot of attention and Congressionally-directed funding. Since Mission: Iconic Reefs is a 20-year project that started near the end of 2019, it’s too early to know what success will look like.
It has been exciting to be involved in and connected to this work. My role was bringing project ideas to the Coral Reef Conservation Program and advocating for funding. The Program is funding a large portion of the work. I also helped with the fish component of the monitoring plan for Mission: Iconic Reefs. I find the good ideas, promote them, and secure funding for them.
Can you describe a time when you were surprised by fish and/or habitat?
While I was earning my Ph.D. at the University of Miami, I did an experiment with larval bicolor damselfish fish that were settling onto a reef. I caught them in a special trap that attracts the larvae with light. Then, I tagged them with a fluorescent marker injected under their skin, placed them on a different part of the reef, and observed them. The goal of this project was to determine if there are physical and behavioral differences between fish that do and do not survive after newly settling on the reef.
This is a dangerous time for young fish. They have been out in the open ocean where it is hard for predators to find them. But they are small and delicious! When they return to the reef they need to be good at evading predators. When you catch fish in a light trap, you disrupt their settlement behavior. I thought they would be able to find a place to hide when I brought them back down to the reef and released them near coral rubble. But the fish wouldn’t stay hidden. They started swimming off the reef into the water.
A different species of damselfish, which scientists generally consider to be an herbivore that eats algae, swam by and ate my experimental fish! I learned that the diets of these damselfish are flexible and opportunistic. That was a surprise.
To adapt, I collected the bicolor damselfish larvae from my light traps, put them in a cooler with coral rubble, and left them there overnight so they got used to being around reef structure. My experimental modification worked. The fish hid on the reef and stayed where they were placed.
How has the office evolved over the years you’ve worked here?
We’re starting to embrace technology and use a lot more virtual tools. While we have access to state-of-the-art research equipment, we struggled to hold virtual meetings until recently. My colleagues in the Coral Reef Conservation Program live all over the country. I work with people across the nation and its territories—from the U.S. Virgin Islands to American Samoa and even Guam. I’d have to check how many different time zones I interact with!
Now, I feel more connected to them as people because we are on video, whereas we used to primarily interact via email and phone calls. I think this was one silver lining of the pandemic. We are using this new way of doing work to build more collaborations with each other.