January 26, 2009

International Year of the Reef 2008 In Review

By U.S. NGO Facilitator for IYOR 2008 Mary Luna

The legacy of The International Year of the Reef 2008 will continue through 2009 and beyond, promoting awareness and generating action for the benefit of the world’s reefs. As exemplified below, the activities and events of this year-long campaign have been eclectic and unbound by geographic or ideological barriers, designed to effectively address the nature of the challenges faced by these underwater ecosystems.

The first IYOR was held in 1997 by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) with very limited funding; yet, it raised support and laid the foundation for future actions that included the establishment of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force and the Coral Reef Conservation Act. In 2005, Reef Check Founder Dr. Gregor Hodgson proposed that a second IYOR be held to stimulate global action for reef conservation. Consequently, IYOR 2008 was launched at the ICRI general meeting in Washington on January 23, 2008, along with the release of the “Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs After Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005” report which includes Reef Check results from the 2005/6 bleaching event. The Philippines Tourism Authority kicked off IYOR in March at the Philippines Dive Expo (PDX). During the event, Dr. Domingo Ochavillo, former Director of Reef Check Philippines, spoke about the status of Philippines’ reefs, efforts to protect and rehabilitate them, and public involvement. As a result, PDX launched two initiatives dealing with mooring buoy installation and outbreaks of the Crown of Thorns starfish.

The objectives of the IYOR include raising awareness and generating action. In an effort to streamline the communication process among reef stakeholders, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Reef Check, and other NGOs teamed up to generate a U.S. messaging campaign. Public Service Announcements and posters based on the campaign’s five key messages were created and made available for free to the public. The United States Virgin Islands IYOR Committee successfully engaged residents of all ages in learning about local marine resources. Throughout 2008 the Committee held “Free Movie Nights” and “Free Public Snorkel Clinics.” Other activities included the “Dive Into IYOR” underwater and beach cleanup, a “Kid’s Activity Day”, a “Beach Activity Day”, the development of radio PSAs, and a SCUBA Essay Contest. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ Organization for Conservation Outreach encouraged Saipan residents to “Take the Right Route” and reduce carbon emissions on October 10 thus helping stop global warming and ocean acidification—issues that affect reefs worldwide. On October 25, it held the Reef 2 Ridge Scavenger Hunt, an event where locals learned about nonpoint source pollution and water quality.

A variety of contests around the world raised awareness among new audiences. Reef Check Hawai`i sponsored two environmental photo categories at the 2008 Kona Classic, an annual underwater photography event. From July 23 – 27, Central Sulawesi (Indonesia) celebrated the IYOR at the Togean Festival with photo and film contests and other fun activities. Horizon International Magic Porthole’s First Environment Achievement Contest, held from July – December, asked participants to write about their efforts to help save coral reefs, no matter how far they live from the ocean. The first annual Ultimate Diver Challenge, where divers compete for the title of “Ultimate Diver,” was held on Cozumel Island in August and included diver awareness strategies conceived by the organizers and Reef Check. Reef Check Australia hosted its second annual photo contest, while Reef Check Headquarters brought in an international audience through its “What Do Reefs Mean to You?” competition, which included categories relating to tropical and temperate reefs. The contest was a tremendous success with over 290 entries from 33 countries and territories. In an effort to engage youth in learning and protecting reefs, Reef Check organized an International Singing Contest featuring the “Year of the Reef Song.” The contest will close for submissions on January 31, 2009. Online voting for the contest begins February 18, so be sure to participate!

Science is an essential component in preserving and rehabilitating reef communities. A key event of the IYOR was the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium held during July in Florida. Here, Reef Check Executive Director Gregor Hodgson announced that coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region have largely recovered from the bleaching event that killed up to 90% of corals on some reefs in 1998. He reported that 10 years later, recovery has occurred faster and more completely than expected. Caribbean reefs, however, are losing about 3% living coral every four years due to a combination of human impacts. In October, the International Union for Conservation of Nature hosted the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, where it celebrated the IYOR by highlighting coral reefs and oceans. During the same month, the Brazilian NGO PRO-MAR held the seminar “Ano Internacional dos Recifes de Coral” (which is Portuguese for IYOR) in Itaparica, Brazil. Topics discussed included the development of the National Program for Monitoring the Brazilian Reefs based on Reef Check Brazil, achievements and advances in experiments on the conservation of reefs, and Marine Protected Areas. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coral Reef Conservation Program celebrated the IYOR by offering free environmental classes throughout the year on Marine Invertebrate and Stony Coral Identification. The Oceanarium in Bournemouth, England held special talks on coral conservation during Surf Week (October 25 – November 2). The Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute in Tuticorin, India organized a national seminar this past December in conjunction with the IYOR. Leading scientists and forest officials from India discussed the status of the nation’s coral reefs and were treated to a performance of the “Year of the Reef Song” by a group of local school girls. Reef Check Italy scientists created two educational videos to celebrate IYOR. The first, La Barriera Corallina, is available in Italian and English and contains images and information on coral reefs. The second deals with the monitoring of Mediterranean reefs.

Art has many ways of discussing its subject; and in 2008 the subject became reefs for many artists. Artist Troy Hotard created “Bringing the Light” as a tribute to IYOR, and traveled the world promoting coral reef conservation through art. American Samoa Governor Togiola T.A. Tulafono invited renowned artist Wyland to paint a mural commemorating the IYOR and the Festival of Pacific Arts; during the inaugural ceremony, Wyland and the Governor signed the International Declaration of Reef Rights. Artist Carlos Hiller painted a massive mural as a tribute to coral reefs in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. More than 70 local children from local NGO “Proyecto de Luz” joined Hiller and painted, wrote letters, and created drawings to send to government institutions, indicating their perceptions, desires, and hopes about the importance of protecting the marine environment. Italian artist Ana Bikic held events in Florida featuring the Declaration and activities for kids. Some of these artists’ works are being showcased at the “Artists for Reefs” online gallery. In January, the Centro Ecologico Akumal in Quintana Roo, Mexico held a Reefs Photo Show to kick off the IYOR. The beauty and magnificence of, and threats to reefs and marine environments were showcased at Morse College of Yale University through a photo exhibit titled “Paradise Despoiled: The World’s Threatened Coral Reefs.”

Music was another great way to celebrate the IYOR. The USVI IYOR Committee held the St. Croix Reef Jam in May. The concert was a great success and profits went to benefit marine conservation programs. In June, 500 kids from the Sichuan Province in China entered a coral reef drawing contest and 200 others gathered to sing and record the “Year of the Reef Song;” most of these children have never experienced the ocean first hand. During the same month, Thin Ice, the creators of the Year of the Reef Song, held their annual concert at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach, California. Attendees enjoyed a gorgeous day and a gentle ocean breeze as children joined the band and sang the “Year of the Reef Song.”

Reef monitoring is an essential component in the efficient management of reef areas, and to contribute to IYOR, many groups around the world organized reef surveys. In February, Reef Check Guadeloupe held a day of fun activities where local youth conducted Reef Check surveys and signed the Declaration. Reef Check Taiwan’s IYOR celebration in March on Green Island focused on aboriginal culture and reef conservation. During this event, divers conducted a Reef Check survey and discussed ideas about marine conservation with aboriginals from the SanYuan A-Mei Tribe. The Marine Biology College of Egypt held a Reef Check monitoring session in September at Tondoba Bay in Marsa Alam. Kosrae Village and Oceanearth conducted a two-week monitoring session from September 27 to October 10. The session, which highlighted the IYOR, was part of Kosrae’s official annual coral monitoring program based on Reef Check methodology. Palu, capital city of the province of Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, celebrated Earth Day and the IYOR with the event “The Oceans are our Front Yard.” Activities included divers and snorkelers pulling trash out of the local reefs and conducting a Reef Check survey and Coral Watch monitoring.

Outreach opportunities in California were abundant during Earth Month. The Ocean Institute in Dana Point contributed to the IYOR by opening public programs focusing on coral and rocky reefs. During opening day, they held public presentations and beach cleanups and offered volunteers free access to the Institute. Other events included Diver Day at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Earth Day on the Promenade in Santa Monica, and the Green Living Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center where Reef Check partnered with EarthRehab, and collected hundreds of signatures for the Declaration.

Well before the onset of IYOR, Reef Check was already planning strategies to help ensure 2008 would be a great year for reef conservation. The International Declaration of Reef Rights, one such strategy, continues to serve as a stage where people can express their concerns and hopes for reefs, and commit to take action. In early 2009, the signatures and comments of over 25,000 people from 157 countries and territories will reach top government officials of countries with coral reefs, along with a request to take actions to protect these resources.

The official U.S. ceremony marking the culmination of IYOR 2008 was held on Tuesday, December 9 in Washington DC. This event, however, did not symbolize an end but a continuation—the beginning of a new chapter in the journey to protect and rehabilitate those magic underwater places that are reefs. Join this effort and remember what the “Year of the Reef” song says – the Year of the Reef is Every Year!