The Transect Line – February 2010
  Newsletter Highlights
Reef Check Data Show Marine Protected Areas Help Reef Check California Update
Reef Check California?s 3rd Annual Catalina Retreat Isla Natividad EcoExpedition, July 2010
Technical Question of the Month: Video Transects    
Reef Check Data Show Marine Protected Areas Help

A new worldwide study, based in part on Reef Check data, shows marine protected areas (MPAs), underwater parks where fishing and other potentially harmful activities are regulated, provide an added bonus – helping coral reef ecosystems ward off and recover from threats to their health.

Researchers also found the protective effects of MPAs generally strengthen over time.

The findings, published in the February 17th issue of the scientific journal PLoS One, confirm and expand on the findings of the first Reef Check survey regarding the value of MPAs on the health of coral reefs.

Such havens have proved successful in protecting fish, leading to optimism among researchers that they may also indirectly help corals by restoring reef-based food webs. Previous studies also suggested that such conservation zones can directly protect reefs from problems such as overfishing, anchor damage and sediment and nutrient runoff pollution from adjacent land.

Marine scientists Elizabeth Selig, Ph.D., and John Bruno, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzed a global database of 8,534 live coral cover surveys conducted between 1969 and 2006. They compared changes in coral cover in 310 marine protected areas to those in nearby unprotected areas, looking at 4,456 reefs in 83 countries. Coral cover, or the percentage of the ocean floor covered by living coral tissue, is a key measure of the health of coral ecosystems.

“We found that, on average, coral cover in protected areas remained constant, but declined on unprotected reefs,” said Selig, the study’s lead author, who completed the work for her doctoral dissertation at UNC. She is now a researcher with Conservation International.

Bruno, associate professor of marine sciences in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, said the results also suggest the protective benefits of such areas increase with time. Initially, coral cover continued to decrease after protections were put in place. However, several years later, rates of decline slowed and then stopped.

In the Caribbean, for example, coral cover declined for about 14 years after protection began – possibly due to the time it took for fisheries to rebound – but then stopped falling and began to increase. In the Indo-Pacific, cover kept declining for the first five years after protections were established, then began to improve, eventually reaching growth rates of two percent yearly after two decades.

“Given the time it takes to maximize these benefits, it makes sense to establish more marine protected areas. Authorities also need to strengthen efforts to enforce the rules in existing areas,” Bruno said.

From 2004 to 2005, the most recent complete year in the database, coral cover within protected areas increased by 0.05 percent in the Caribbean and 0.08 percent in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In contrast, coral cover on unprotected reefs declined by an average of 0.27 percent in the Caribbean, and 0.41 percent and 0.43 percent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, respectively.

The paper noted that the results may even be a conservative estimate of the benefits because regulations aimed at controlling fishing, poaching and other activities in many MPAs in the tropics are poorly enforced. In addition, most areas have only recently been established (almost 60 percent of the surveys in the analysis were from areas less than 15 years old).

“Although the year-to-year changes in coral cover may seem trivial over the short term, the cumulative effects could be substantial over several decades,” Selig said.

However, Selig and Bruno said it remains to be seen whether the observed benefits of MPAs are sufficient to offset coral losses from major disease outbreaks and bleaching events, both of which are predicted to increase due to climate change. That concern is backed by their finding that widespread warming events like the strong El Niño climatic event of 1998 drastically reduced the positive effects of protective zones. “Marine protected areas are clearly a key tool for coral reef conservation, but we will still have to focus on implementing policies that will reduce climate change,” they said.

Reef Check Executive Director, Dr. Gregor Hodgson notes:

“This type of meta-analysis is very important because it uses such a large dataset and over such a large geographic range that it allows major patterns to emerge that are often buried when looking at a few sites, areas or years. What this paper confirms is that MPA managers are doing a better job of managing their MPAs and this is resulting on average in higher coral cover, despite the fact that many MPAs are still “paper parks” lacking any real management at all. It also shows that some management is better than none.

This indicates that:

– We need to continue long-term monitoring programs like Reef Check to be able to pick up trends that may take decades to discern.
– Governments should continue to press on with investing in better management of MPAs.
– For countries depending on a tourism economy – a high coral cover and large fish are what visitors want to see – so the investment in MPAs that countries like Belize have made for so many years are now being repaid many times over, because there are so few sites left with abundant coral and fish.

We are very pleased when independent scientists are able to use the work of thousands of Reef Check volunteers to produce high quality science.”

Click here to read the full paper.

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Reef Check California?s 3rd Annual Catalina Retreat

By Reef Check California's Regional Manager Colleen Wisniewski & Director of Science Cyndi Dawson

For the third year in a row, Reef Check California (RCCA) staff and instructors gathered for three days of strategic planning, program evaluation and team bonding at Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) Toyon Bay. This is the one time of year we try to gather together all our instructors who are teaching RCCA statewide in order to recalibrate, share ideas and have a little fun in a beautiful location. It is also a time when everyone receives updates on the larger Reef Check organization and gets an idea of how RCCA fits in with the overall mission and goals of the Reef Check Foundation (RCF).

This three day event is a mix of presentations, round table discussions, diving, team building and fun. Notable topics of conversation included sharing the results of some recent strategic planning done with the RCF Board, a review of RCCA achievements to date and goals for the future, a lively conversation (with a lot of key input provided by all our attendees) about RCCA’s approach and interactions with marine management in CA, a review of dive safety policies/procedures and an important discussion about clarification on RCCA protocol issues. All in all we had some very timely and important discussions about the program.     

The field portion of the retreat had us at Long Point on CIMI's great dive boat the “Discovery.” The instructors all performed the same surveys on two sets of transect lines and then we compared numbers after the dive to ensure we were all on the same page. It is the one opportunity we have each year to evaluate all our instructors and staff, and to fine tune our survey skills. We had some great discussions, including some close inspection of three species of Sargassum. Since this first dive was a success, we moved to another dive site around the corner in search of giant black sea bass. We didn't find these large fish but we did find 50+ ft visibility and very mellow, amazing conditions – quite unusual for this dive site. The dive trip was a great way to bond underwater with our dedicated and talented group of RCCA Instructors.

It was an amazingly productive week and we generated a long list of action items to tackle in the coming months. Thanks to all who took their own time to travel to the retreat and contribute their ideas and thoughts. Our instructors and volunteers are the reason behind RCCA’s growing success, and their continued input will ensure we stay on the right track.  Extra special thanks also go to Catalina Island Marine Institute and Guided Discoveries who make this annual event  possible by providing meeting space, boats, scuba tanks, accommodations, meals and amazing staff.  We look forward to another amazing retreat next year!

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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 California — Why do we use visual (slate) instead of video fish transects?

The best methods for collecting data in the marine environment depend on many factors including environmental conditions, behavior of the organisms of interest, cost and relative safety of collecting techniques. What you are measuring (metric), whether it be the number of blue rockfish or the size of abalone on a reef, can often require completely different data collection techniques. The parameters that we are interested in measuring are abundance (number of selected indicator species), diversity (number of different indicator species), and size. Many of our volunteers have often asked us whether or not video transects might be a more suitable method than the Reef Check Protocol for measuring these parameters. Studies from tropical reefs have shown that visual (or slate) censuses are the more accurate technique to determine the number of fish species and the abundance of lower-density species, which are either cryptic (hidden), evasive, or difficult to distinguish from the background1. Video transects were found to be adequate for measuring species with high abundances that tend to school.

A large proportion of our target fish species in California are cryptic and found deep within crevices, such as rockfishes. We also have the additional difficulty of kelp filling the entire water column, thus reducing chances for observation. Therefore, the visual diver census is the method that best fits our conditions and organisms of interest. Our maximum depth of 60ft for all surveys means that we sample relatively shallow, nearshore rocky reefs. Rocky reef surveys at deeper depths in California are generally collected using submarines and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that employ video transects. Although visual diver transect data would likely collect more accurate data on the cryptic species at these depths, diver surveys below 60ft are much less safe and therefore less suitable than video. Another often overlooked task associated with video surveys is the post processing of the video. An hour spent recording video means at least an hour spent watching video, recording the data, and entering it into a database. This can greatly increase the amount of time spent per transect and therefore can increase costs significantly. If the video operator does not record in cracks and crevices, some animals may be missed. While there are factors that can contribute to a reduction in precision of slate transect data, such as attraction of fishes to divers, time spent looking down recording data, and slight differences in technique between divers2, this is most accurate and least expensive way to gather data in our given conditions. 

1Tessier, E. et al. 2005. Visual censuses of tropical fish aggregations on artificial reef: slate versus video recording techniques. Journal of Experimental Biology and Ecology 315:17-30.
2Harvey, E. et al. 2002. Estimation of reef fish length by divers and by stereo-video A first comparison of the accuracy of and precision in the field on living fish under operational conditions. Fisheries Research 57:255-265.

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Reef Check California Update

By Reef Check California Director of Science Cyndi Dawson

Well so much for the off season! Your Reef Check California (RCCA) staff has been ramping things up this past month to get ready for the fast approaching survey season. During the first part of the month the Reef Check Board of Directors held a Strategic Planning session that focused on charting a course for the organization for the future. Our Top Transector for 2008 and 2009, Dirk Burcham, attended to provide the RCCA point of view from a volunteer’s perspective. We followed up this event with the annual RCCA Staff and Instructor retreat. See the article in this newsletter for photos and a detailed run down of events. These two events have really energized the staff to keep striving to improve the Program and find ways to better support the efforts of our incredible volunteer citizen scientists.

Other BIG NEWS in February is RCCA was awarded funds from the Ocean Protection Council to help with the baseline monitoring of the soon-to-be-implemented marine protected areas (MPAs) along the north central coast. RCCA joined a host of academic institutions such as Sonoma State University, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, and others to collaborate on a proposal that will comprehensively monitor most of the habitats present inside and outside the new MPAs. Groups will focus on sandy beaches, the intertidal zone, deep reefs (>60ft) with ROVs, and RCCA will be part of the focus on shallow (<60ft) rocky reefs. This award was based on a peer reviewed process administered through California Sea Grant. This is a momentous step for RCCA to be recognized by our scientific peers to collect critical baseline data that will be used to evaluate and adaptively manage this network of MPAs in the future. RCCA data collected by our citizen scientist volunteers will also be part of an innovative integrated analysis at the end of two years of data collection to interpret the results across all habitats and assess the overall health of the region’s rocky reefs. You can click here to read the press release on the award.

We continue to get our data out there and this month we added RCCA information to the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN) website. The SIMoN website serves as a clearinghouse for relevant datasets within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Through an array of database and display systems, and information provided from close to 100 research institutes, they have the best available comprehensive view of the MBNMS, and now RCCA is a part of this incredible resource. Visit the SIMoN Kelp Forest Project Page by clicking here and check out RCCA and other projects collecting data on rocky reefs in the MBNMS.

If you want the inside scoop on what is happening with RCCA you can follow me on Twitter. I will continue “tweeting” throughout the season to keep everyone updated on the RCCA program and my exploits as RCCA’s Director of Science. All relevant updates will also be posted on the Forum including daily blogs when I am on the road spreading the word about Reef Check.

We continue to be on the front lines of improving marine management in California and we need your continued support! Your donations to RCCA go directly to supporting the collection of the critical data needed to sustainably manage California’s marine resources. Please join us and help ensure the sustainability of reefs worldwide!

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Mark Your Calendars

2010 Dive EcoExpedition to Isla Natividad

Embark on a fantastic and unique kelp forest adventure!

Dates: July 9 – 15, 2010
Price: $2050 USD
Spaces available: 6

Dive in one of the best preserved kelp forest ecosystems in the California Current, witness the progressive management techniques of the Natividad community, and contribute to preserving Baja's biological richness.

Join this EcoExpedition as a certified Reef Check California diver or a non-certified guest, and fly directly from San Diego into Natividad, where superb diving and a fantastic cross-cultural experience await you! This rugged region offers you encounters with many exciting species such as rays, lobster, abalone, sheephead, bottom dwelling sharks, sea bass, whitefish, yellowtail, and the endangered black-vented shearwater. This is Northern Baja like you’ve never seen it before!

For more information, please contact Reef Check's Mexico Program Manager Mary Luna or click here.

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