The Transect Line – August/September 2010 Newsletter Archive
  Newsletter Highlights
Fifth Annual Isla Natividad Reef Check Recertification Technical Question of the Month
DAN Contributes to Safer Diving in Natividad Bahamas Expands Reef Check in National Monitoring Program
Reef Check California Update Baros Maldives to Become Country's 1st Training Center
Fifth Annual Isla Natividad Reef Check Recertification

By Reef Check California Southern California Manager Colleen Wisniewski

For the fifth consecutive summer, Reef Check staff members have returned to Isla Natividad, on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur in Mexico, to work with the Natividad Fishing Cooperative and the Mexican NGO Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to recertify them for data collection on the biological communities of their local rocky reefs. In 2006, two no-take marine reserves and four control sites were established around the island and the sites have been monitored annually. This project is truly a partnership as members of the Cooperative, staff from COBI and Reef Check work side by side in the classroom and field, as well as in the planning of this annual event.

I was fortunate to join the team this year with Mary Luna, Program Manager for Mexico. We traveled to Baja from July 18th-26th to lead the annual recertification. We drove down through Baja, making it a beautiful and memorable trip through the desert and coastal areas of the Peninsula.

Wednesday evening, after our first day of recertification, we were part of a very insightful roundtable discussion with the members of the Cooperative. We gave a brief overview of Reef Check and COBI presented some of the findings from several years of data collection, but most interesting was when each member of the Cooperative’s monitoring team spoke about their reason for joining this project, the obvious impacts they’ve seen from the reserves and why the reserves are important to them. This was especially interesting for me after being involved in California Marine Life Protection Act meetings over the last several years which will eventually result in a statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs). In contrast to California, everyone discussing the MPAs here lives and works closely together on a small island and relies on the local marine resources. Overall, it seemed that they had positive impressions of their marine reserves and supported keeping these protected areas and potentially expanding them.

On Thursday, we loaded up two pangas and motored to Punta Prieta, one of the two reserves, where we practiced some invertebrate, algae and uniform point contact (UPC) transects. I was amazed at the size and quantity of the kelp bass and sheephead. It made me wonder what it would have been like to dive in California 50 or 100 years ago. The kelp was very dense in spots, creating a thick canopy on the surface and darkness underwater. It was interesting to see some different species, like the Pacific porgy, mixed in with the species I’m more accustomed to seeing on surveys. In the afternoon, we returned to the classroom to review our progress from the morning and to prepare for the next day.

The next two mornings were spent practicing and testing the divers in the survey methods. On Friday we dove at a different location – La Guanera, which is not a reserve. Back in the classroom, all the divers did well on their species identification tests and we discussed specific questions these seasoned surveyors had regarding the protocols. Once the classroom sessions were complete on our last evening, Mary and I enjoyed a hike to the lighthouse for sunset. On the way back I even got to compete (and win, thanks to my teammate Mario) in a futbolito, or foosball, tournament with some of the divers from COBI and the Cooperative. 

We left the island on Saturday afternoon, shortly after returning from three training dives in a beautiful spot with a friendly harbor seal and got back on the road for our long journey home. I am already looking forward to the possibility of returning to Isla Natividad to recertify these divers next year and hopefully, to eventually bring some Reef Check divers from California to join the team and learn more about this amazing project and its people.        

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DAN Contributes to Safer Diving in Natividad

By Reef Check Program Manager, Mexico & Outreach Mary Luna

Divers Alert Network (DAN) staff traveled to Isla Natividad this July to conduct a technical assessment of the local hyperbaric chamber to determine what improvements are needed for the chamber to operate at international standards. In addition to benefiting the local fisher-divers, the goal of the training and recommendations provided by DAN is to support the development of sustainable dive tourism in Natividad.

During their stay on the island, DAN’s Latin America Medical Coordinator Dr. Matias Nochetto, and Director of Training Eric Douglas alongside the local chamber operators, conducted the assessment using DAN’s “Risk Assessment Guide for Recompression Facilities.” A meeting was also organized for fisher-divers and their teams to ask questions and discuss the effects of diving on the human body. Eric opened the meeting expressing high regard for the organization level of the Natividad fisher-divers, and interest in presenting their case to the Miskito fisher-divers of Honduras’ Mosquito coast (another group DAN is working with), as an example they may learn from. Elaborating on the similarities and differences between the two communities, Eric explained that the Miskito fishers use SCUBA to capture lobster, their only commercial fishery, and are known to “burn” through eight SCUBA tanks per work day. They are employed by independent fleet operators, earn extremely low wages, and the work sites are open access and located at least three boat days from the nearest chamber. The majority are of indigenous origin and illiterate. The net result is a community with high rates of dive-related disabilities and deaths.

In contrast, the Natividad fishers have concessions to the waters surrounding the island, and are organized in a Cooperative through which business and legal matters are conducted. Members receive a high percentage of the fisheries revenue, and the remainder is invested in social services. Lobster is captured with traps; a method that may be less effective in an open access system. Other species like sea cucumber are collected using hookah, a technique where a compressor on a boat is used to continuously pump air through a hose to the diver. The fishing areas are located a maximum of 40 minutes by boat from the chamber. Although the length, depth and water temperature at which these divers work make them more susceptible to decompression than the average recreational diver, there is no record of dive-related casualties in Natividad. Some interesting observations that came up during the presentation were the difference in the number of daily immersions per fisher-diver using SCUBA vs. hookah, quick access to hyperbaric treatment, level of organization of the fisher-divers, and the advantage of a concession vs. open access, which might result in longer fishing trips and increased risk.

Two workshops were also held where fishing teams got to practice setting up an emergency oxygen unit and administering oxygen to a partner. The DAN meeting and workshops were very well attended, and the fisher-divers showed great enthusiasm and interest in learning, asking questions and sharing their stories. Cooperative administrators will present the DAN report to all the members during their upcoming annual meeting in September, where all will discuss and vote on the next steps to take in the improvement of their chamber operations. On behalf of the Natividad Cooperative, COBI and Reef Check, we thank the Divers Alert Network for their support, and Matias and Eric for their commitment. Please click here to view pictures.

Editor's Note: Reef Check has been involved in promoting safe diving practices among hookah fishermen in the Philippines and Indonesia since 2003.

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Reef Check California Update

By Reef Check California Director Dr. Jan Freiwald

In August, Reef Check California (RCCA) continued to survey the rocky reefs along our coast. With all our new and seasoned volunteer divers, our survey season is in full swing. Our statewide staff is working with volunteers to survey existing sites and add new ones where we have opportunities. 

Our North/Central Coast coordinator, Narineh Nazarian, is surveying with groups of scientific divers from Humboldt State University along the north coast as well as helping to train students from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories as scientific and Reef Check divers at the UC Big Creek reserve in Big Sur. In our northern region we have completed most of our existing sites and will start this month to work with PISCO to establish the subtidal rocky reef baseline data for the new MPAs along this section of the coastline.

Along the Central Coast, our Regional Manager Megan Wehrenberg, with the help of intern Caitlin Cooper and many volunteers, are surveying sites around Monterey and Carmel Bay. In the short time since Caitlin started at RCCA she has become a great member of the team and a leader in the field.  We have completed about 50% of our sites in this region and Megan is scoping out new sites and working on extending our reach south past Big Sur and further into the San Luis Obispo area.

In Southern California, our Regional Manager Colleen Wisniewski went to Isla Natividad in Baja California to recertify local fishers in Reef Check survey methods, our fifth annual training of the community members on this island (see above).  In addition, Colleen and volunteer coordinator Laurel Fink are working on completing our SoCal surveys with over 50% of our sites done so far.

If you would like to join us for surveys in any of our study regions please visit the RCCA forum to check out the schedule and sign up to participate.

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Technical Question of the Month

Each month, Reef Check will answer a technical question regarding the monitoring protocol of our coral reef or rocky reef programs. If you have a question you would like answered, please email

Reef Check Tropical — Why doesn?t Reef Check Monitor Angelfish or Surgeonfish?

The tropical protocol was designed to use proxy indicators, typically at the family level, to indicate the health of coral reefs with respect to human impacts. It was designed to extract the maximum information about reef health in the minimum time and by trained volunteers. Reef Check surveys also provide a lot of ecological information about the reef, but the protocol was not designed as an ecological survey per se.

Two global fish indicators, the Grouper and the Parrotfish families were chosen to represent predators and herbivores that are targeted by fishermen for food. Butterflyfish were chosen to help track the impacts of the marine aquarium trade on reefs.  Unfortunately, the more indicators that are included in the Reef Check protocol, the more training is needed and the greater chance of error by volunteers. By restricting the taxonomic detail and the number of indicators to less than ten fish and ten invertebrates, this makes Reef Check accessible to well trained high school students or fishermen.

Angelfish and Surgeonfish would be excellent indicators of coral reef health because the former are targeted by aquarium fishermen and the latter are an important food fish. However, we don’t include them in Reef Check because we had to make a decision about what makes the best indicators. If we included all the possible indicators then we are back to a standard scientific survey requiring many weeks of training that would no longer be suitable for volunteers. From this perspective, the Butterflyfish are proxies for Angelfish with respect to the marine aquarium trade and the Parrots are proxies for the Surgeonfish from the perspective of an herbivore that is targeted as a food fish. Of course they are not perfect proxies because there are many differences in their behavior, feeding and life history strategies. But together with the other fish, invertebrate, algal and non-living indicators, the Reef Check protocol has proven to provide a very useful measure of reef health. For Reef Check teams that have the taxonomic skills and interest, we welcome you to add one or two more indicators that you feel are important in your area, however, we don’t include those in our global database.

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Bahamas Expands Reef Check in National Monitoring Program

By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

The Bahamas is one of the most important coral reef countries in the Caribbean with 29 major islands, 661 small cays and over 2,300 rocky islets – many surrounded by reefs. The first Reef Check surveys in the Bahamas were carried out in 1999. Surveys have been carried out almost every year since by independent scientists and student groups from the Chicago City Day School. But given the vast size of the Bahamas, the sampling effort has been small and the government has not been involved.

More and more governments are recognizing the value of Reef Check surveys as a low-cost, broad-brush technique to track coral reef health and climate change — useful at both the MPA and national levels. The Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology (BEST) Commission is now implementing a UNEP GEF Project focusing on the marine environment. The project partners include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), and The Department of Marine Resources (DMR). As part of the “Strengthening & Expanding of the MPA Network” component, there are 3 pilot projects: invasive alien species (the lionfish), incorporating climate change and mangrove restoration into conservation planning, and sustainable tourism and coral reef health.

According to the Project Coordinator, Laura Millar, “All three pilot projects are taking place within existing MPAs; the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) and the South Berry Islands Marine Reserve (SBIMR). Reef Check was selected as the methodology for establishing data on the baseline condition at these sites, as well as the tool for collecting data for monitoring and evaluation. It is anticipated that the most successful outcomes from each of the pilot projects will be scaled up and applied across other MPAs in The Bahamas.”

During the week of August 23rd, Laura arranged for thirteen participants from TNC, DMR and BNT to be trained as Reef Check EcoDivers in Nassau. The classroom sessions were followed by field training and a completed Reef Check survey at a local reef. The results of the surveys were quite interesting because they indicated that the popular dive site, Goulding Reef, has a healthy population of parrotfish, a resident reef shark, but few grouper, snapper or jacks – an indication of heavy fishing pressure. As it turns out, parrotfish are traditionally not considered a tasty food fish in the Bahamas.

All 13 participants in the training course are now certified EcoDivers and look forward to starting their surveys. Upon completion of their pre-requisites, some will be participating in the Training of Trainers Course later this year with the eventual goal of training over 70 EcoDivers in the Bahamas. With Reef Check now being supported by the key government agencies and NGO responsible for conservation, it will finally be possible to obtain a long term dataset from multiple islands and track coral reef health in the country, including the impacts of the rapidly reproducing invasive lionfish.

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Baros Maldives to Become Country's 1st Training Center

Submitted by Reef Check EcoDiver Course Director Jean-Luc Solandt

The Marine Conservation Society, Baros Resort and Reef Check are collaborating on a unique training opportunity in the Maldives this September. Baros Resort, situated in North Male atoll in the diverse Maldives Islands is becoming the first Reef Check Eco-resort and training center of the Maldives. RC Maldives Course Director Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt will be providing the week-long training to members of the dive staff from September 10th – 17th. The conclusion of this training week will result in two MPAs being surveyed using the Reef Check methodology, expanding on surveys carried out in the Maldives since 2005. The more significant legacy of the training will be that Baros dive staff will then be able to train visitors to the resort to become EcoDivers and involve them in surveying of local reefs, both concentrating on the MPAs already surveyed, but also expanding surveys to new locations.

Dr. Solandt is delighted with the development and commitment to conservation action by Baros, “The Maldives is a relatively hard place to access and carry out Reef Check, so the involvement of Baros in these surveys is vital in continuing our survey work in the nation, and developing new surveys at exceptional sites in and around North Male.”

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