October 31, 2019

My Reef Check Journey: From the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Barrier Reef

By Susanna Primavesi and Gemma Molinaro

As an enthusiastic Italian scientific diver, I have been part of the amazing Reef Check family since 2018. My passion for the tropical environment and conservation have taken me to Australia to study the Great Barrier Reef. I took part in several projects, both in Italy and Australia, and found the methodologies are different based on vastly different marine habitats.

Reef Check Italy (RCI) has developed a set of protocols for monitoring the Mediterranean Sea, such as MAC (Coastal Environment Monitoring), Signal fishing nets, Temperature relief, Signal nudibranchs, gorgonians and mass mortality reports. Italy is important for Mediterranean biodiversity; however, this fragile ecosystem is at risk due to human activity and climate change effects such as rising water temperature and the presence of invasive species.

As Reef Check Italy EcoDiver volunteers, we monitor coastal environments recording the presence and absence of indicator species. The methodology of MAC is based on a visual census in random paths, called ”timed swims”. Reef Check Australia (RCA) has different protocols but like RCI, the goal is monitoring and data collection to help manage their underwater habitats. The RCA method is conducted along a transect line where surveyors collect information about substrate, density of invertebrates and fish, and impacts on the reef.

In recent years, the Great Barrier Reef has been subject to climate change and human impacts, such as mass bleaching events, cyclone impacts and Crown of Thorns Seastar outbreaks which have led to coral loss and mortality in some areas.

During September, I participated in RCA’s Reef Check Ambassador Training to learn how to educate people about the ocean and empower them to be reef-friendly. One week later, I and other citizen scientists attended a Reef Leadership workshop organized by RCA and Reef Ecologic at the Orpheus Island Research Station. In this workshop, we learned about three different monitoring methods used to gain knowledge about the health of reefs through Coral Watch, RHIS (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Citizen Science monitoring method) and Reef Check Australia. We collected RCA survey data at Magnetic Island sites, which are nearshore fringing coral reefs. We found a high presence of macroalgae, diverse coral communities and low visibility due to the proximity to shore.

In contrast to Magnetic Island, John Brewer Reef, an outer reef, had higher coral cover, less macroalgae and amazing visibility. With Reef Ecologic staff we did two surveys with both RHIS and RCA methods. Our next outer reef was Lodestone reef. We did two surveys and sadly, we saw large areas of coral mortality due to Crown of Thorns and bleaching. Just two years ago, there was a high diversity of coral at this site.

Visiting these two outer reefs and the fringing Magnetic Island reefs, a stark contrast is evident between inshore and offshore reefs. The outer reef is more coral dominated while the inner reef is algae dominated; however, Crown of Thorns impacts have also transformed sites at outer Lodestone reef by significantly reducing coral cover.
Days later, we participated in a clean-up event as a Reef Check Ambassador, organized by Tangaroa Blue. We collected marine debris from two beaches on Hinchinbrook Island and found just under 2 tons of debris!

One week later, with RCA, I participated in a Reef Clean project at Hook Island. We collected and sorted debris from beach and underwater clean-ups, allowing us to see what is washing up on the beach instead of sinking to the ocean floor. We found mostly debris dropped by tourists. We also did RCA surveys on local fringing reef sites.

Although the Mediterranean Sea and the Great Barrier Reef are two very different ecosystems, with different impacts and threats, Reef Check Worldwide has the same driven and dedicated volunteers helping to collect data and protect the natural environment, empowering people to take care of the ocean so we can have a better future outlook.