Protecting Coral Reefs

Protecting Coral Reefs

A ”Counsell Lab” selfie

Dr. Chelsie Counsell, assistant professor of biology, and her students studied Hawaii’s vulnerable coral reefs in Kāné ohe Bay.

There’s really just so much beauty in the world, and we have to remember these [wild] places even when we’re not close to them.

— Rebecca Buonopane ’22

Coral reefs, which are made up of hundreds to thousands of individual living polyps, are extremely valuable marine ecosystems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an estimated 25 percent of all marine life — including more than 4,000 species of fish — is dependent on coral reefs at some point in their life cycle.

Chelsie Counsell, PhD, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been researching coral reefs and marine communities for over a decade. She explained that because reefs are so vulnerable to the effects of “human activities,” scientific study of at-risk environments has never been more vital.

“It can be really overwhelming, the variety of ways in which humanity is stressing out the ecosystems around us,” Dr. Counsell said recently over Zoom, a cut from a Queen Conch shell hanging from a string around her neck.

“CO2 pollution, climate change, microplastics, oil pollution, over-fishing… I don’t think people should stop living their lives. But, I think the balance is: how do we have quality of life and not damage the ecosystems around us?”

Having taught at Fairfield for just over a year — a new hire amid the pandemic — Dr. Counsell brought two Fairfield student researchers with her this past summer when she returned to fieldwork on an 18-foot Boston Whaler in and around Kane’ohe Bay, off the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

As an undergraduate at Elon University, Dr. Counsell had thought she wanted to go into medicine until a mentor asked her to go on a fieldwork research trip to study coral reefs. She was hooked, and “never looked back.” She received a PhD in marine biology from the University of Hawaii in 2018.

Rebecca Buonopane ’22 takes a closer look at coral in Kane’ohe Bay

Rebecca Buonopane ’22 takes a closer look at coral in Kane’ohe Bay

Dr. Counsell’s research asks questions about how marine ecosystems vary through space and over time. Much of her work has focused on human inputs on reef ecosystem health.

The further questions posed by Dr. Counsell’s work, she explained, are, “How can we minimize our impact? Or, how can we restore a system that we’ve already damaged?” Officially, Dr. Counsell’s two major research projects are titled “Adjacent Habitat Quality” and “Reef Fish Recruitment.”

For “Adjacent Habitat Quality” she studied the Cauliflower Coral, a common coral with a relatively small (basketball-sized) branching structure. Dr. Counsell studied the community of small fishes and invertebrates (including shrimps and crabs) that live between the branches of this coral colony. These areas are also known as “cryptic reef communities” because one could easily snorkel near these corals and completely miss them; they are blended into the coral in such a way that a flashlight is necessary to see them. She also looked at how the numbers of these species increase or decrease based on their proximity to human activity.


Dr. Counsell photographs the reef to document the quality of the habitat; a yellowspotted guard crab (Trapezia flavopunctata) tucked into a Cauliflower Coral (Pocillopora meandrina).

In “Reef Fish Recruitment,” Dr. Counsell observed and tracked the lifecycle of baby fish or “recruits” and used plankton samples to catch and study reef fish larvae. Fish recruitwise, she focused on three particularly telling families of reef fish: surgeonfish (family Acanthuridae), parrotfish (family Scaridae), and butterflyfish (family Chaetodontidae). This helped Dr. Counsell “to better understand how these larvae exist and how they move through space and time.” But the larvae can be elusive, so she also conducted in-depth surveys of the reef habitat, specifically searching for small reef fish, or the recruits to the reef.

“The more we can understand about those little baby fish,” Dr. Counsell noted, “the more we can know about marine management and better understand how we can help keep reef communities healthy and diverse.”

For these projects, Dr. Counsell enlisted two undergraduate student research assistants: Rebecca Buonopane ’22 and Jillian Ryan ’22. Both seniors applied for University-funded grants to support their trip to Hawaii, during which they stayed in dormitories on Coconut Island — a private research lab only accessible by boat — for a month this past summer.

“It was so stunningly beautiful,” said Buonopane, a marine biology major who hopes for a career in the field. “There’s really just so much beauty in the world, and we have to remember these [wild] places even when we’re not close to them.”

“It’s rigorous and admirable,” Ryan said of the research that Dr. Counsell and her colleagues embarked on in the field, in the lab, and “behind the scenes.” An environmental studies major, Ryan hopes to build a career in marine biology as well.

A typical day for the pair during their month in Hawaii started around six or seven in the morning. They ate a light breakfast — to avoid sea sickness — and hopped onto the boat to begin the day out on the water and in the labs. The students geared-up in weighted, full-body wetsuits for snorkeling, and slathered on thick, white, reef-safe zinc oxide sunscreen.

On working alongside her students, Dr. Counsell said, “It’s fun to feel their energy in the lab, and to have a sense of that work growing because of them.”

Other Articles in the Winter 2021 Issue

Letter from the President

Read the Article

Alumni Profile: Mary Alice Limperopulos ’13

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Alumni Profile: Alfred Foglio ’92

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Opening the Doors

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Nursing Ambition

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God’s Work

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Open Space

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