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CoastLine: Palmyra Atoll, in the center of the Pacific Ocean, offers scientists a pristine ecosystem for study

 Raccoon Butterfly Fish at Western Terrace, Palmyra Atoll
Kay Lynn Hernandez
Raccoon Butterfly Fish at Western Terrace, Palmyra Atoll

One of the most remote places on earth, Palmyra Atoll is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's an outpost for conservation scientists to conduct research. On this episode, we find out what they're learning about how coral reefs thrive — and why that's important for a healthy ecosystem in water and on land.

There is a place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from any mainland, equidistant from New Zealand and North America. It is a circular string of about 26 tiny islands, nestled among several lagoons, surrounded by 15,000 acres of shallow turquoise reefs and deep blue submerged reefs. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

 Underwater at Palmyra Atoll
Dr. Joe Pollock
Underwater at Palmyra Atoll

In 2000, The Nature Conservancy purchased the atoll to protect the endangered marine wilderness and also to establish a place for conservation scientists to conduct their work. In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior named it a wildlife refuge, and eight years later, in 2009, President George W. Bush established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – which includes this 26-islet atoll known as Palmyra.

The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Palmyra Program Director Chad Wiggins, have partnered in the management of Palmyra since 2000.

"TNC has authority over Palmyra’s research and resident facilities located on an ~240 acre TNC Preserve, owned by TNC. The preserve contains rainforest and seabird conservation/restoration priority areas and all work areas (lab, maintenance shop) and housing for staff, scientists, federal partners, and resource managers – FWS supports management of TNC’s preserve through providing staff and volunteer labor and consultative expertise.

"FWS has jurisdictional authority for the ~440 acres of lands, all of the reefs, and waters out to 12 miles – FWS leads long-term seabird monitoring on these islands and volunteer teams focused on ecosystem restoration. TNC supports management of these lands and waters through providing consultative expertise, technology tools (e.g. drone mapping), and leads conservation science actions with our staff, volunteers, and assets (e.g. TNC operates the offshore boats and leads on marine monitoring, wildlife movement, fishing gear recovery, fisheries science efforts).

"NOAA and FWS share jurisdictional authority for waters 12-50 miles offshore. And TNC and FWS work together on projects that occur in offshore waters," said Wiggins.

Editor's note: This article has been expanded to more clearly reflect the management partnership between The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — as well as jurisdictional authority over the land and surrounding waters.


Dr. Joe Pollock, Senior Coral Reef Resilience Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Hawai'i and Palmyra Programs

Kay Lynn Hernandez, Palmyra Preserve Manager for The Nature Conservancy; owner, Wilmington Outdoor Adventures


The Nature Conservancy:  Palmyra Atoll

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Photos and video from Dr. Joe Pollock

Video from Dr. Joe Pollock of Manta Rays – including “George [manta ray] Clooney”

Wilmington Outdoor Adventures information on eco-tours  

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.