Sharks Help Scientists Study Pacific Nuclear Test Site

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 11, 2003

Nuclear weapons, Agent Orange, and mustard gas aren't normally associated with environmental protection. Yet on a remote Pacific atoll they've been indirectly responsible for safeguarding a thriving coral reef ecosystem. The U.S. military has maintained a presence on Johnston Atoll since before World War II. Over the years, it's housed a nuclear testing site and, more recently, a facility for the destruction of chemical weapons.

Because of these activities, Johnston Atoll's marine environment has been spared many of the pressures that affect similar habitats worldwide. A landing strip on the tiny island makes it resemble a floating aircraft carrier. But underwater, it's a different story.

"It's a very pristine atoll," said Phillip Lobel, a Boston University professor who has conducted military-supported environmental research at the atoll for 20 years. "It has not been subject to commercial or even much recreational fishing, because, until recently, as long as the weapons were there, the military was very strict about anyone coming too close to the atoll."

Enforcement, so often a problem in the management of marine resources, was not an issue at the well-guarded facility.

"Underwater, the island's really in pretty gorgeous condition," Lobel said.

Still, many question the impact of the island's chemical legacy, one that includes a plutonium landfill that's spurred debate between environmentalists, the military, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Johnston Atoll is a remote spot lying some 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the next closest landfall at French Frigate Shoals in the Hawaiian Islands.

Part of Lobel's research is an ongoing attempt to gauge the environmental impact of the atoll's weapons-testing legacy. The atoll's abundant shark population has become an important part of the research picture. "Our bigger battle is to determine what really needs to be done in terms of environmental protection. This shark work is a direct part of that," Lobel said. "In some animals we see measurable levels of PCBs and dioxins. So we want to know, how are they possibly acquiring this? Is it a threat?"

Several species of shark inhabit the reef. But the one Lobel and colleagues research most closely is the grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos).

"During the shark study we're looking at bio-accumulation of contaminants, PCBs, and other things," Lobel said. "These are top-level predators, and we're very interested in knowing where they go, where they feed. We'd like to know if they might concentrate their activities in certain areas that have fewer or more contaminants. That's part of what the Crittercam research was for."


As part of the site shark research, Greg Marshall of National Geographic Television was on hand to employ "Crittercam" technology, with a team including Patrick Greene. The Crittercam was invented by Marshall, a marine biologist and Executive Producer/Director with National Geographic Television. Marshall has spent over a decade developing the crittercam program, which is currently in use on research sites around the world.

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