The Transect Line – January 2010
  Newsletter Highlights
Haiti Earthquake and Coral Reefs Reef Check California Update
Reef Check Travels to Punta Sayulita, Mexico Technical Question of the Month: Plumb Line
Catalina Islanders Survey Their Local Rocky Reefs Widgets for Reefs: RC Partners With SharkBreak
Haiti Earthquake and Coral Reefs

By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

The earthquake in Haiti has been a huge tragedy with perhaps 200,000 lost and many more injured. What has not been discussed is the status of coral reefs in Haiti. Were they damaged by the earthquake, and if so will this affect the long term food supply for Haitians? Long time Transect Line readers will recall the dramatic earthquake and tsunami that affected Aceh, Indonesia and many other countries in late 2004. Reef Check was the first conservation organization on scene and sent back the first photos of tilted islands and large areas of exposed dead reef.

The problem in Haiti is that very little is known about the reefs. Reef Check has been partnering with a local conservation group in Haiti since 2005 and was preparing for field surveys and training when the earthquake hit. Haiti’s reefs have a large potential to help supply protein to the hungry population.

Haiti occupies the western half of Hispaniola Island with a population of over 9 million (25% of the Caribbean). It is the poster child of poverty in the western hemisphere with a per capita GDP of $1300, and environmental degradation. 80% of Haitians live under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty with 70% of the labor force lacking regular employment.

Fringing coral reefs are found along most of the 1829km long coast with a barrier reef in the north.  Very little is known about Haiti’s coral reefs. Reef Check surveys carried out in 2002 with the help of RC Jamaica indicated that despite heavy impacts, coral reefs in the Arcadine/La Gonave area were still in relatively good condition with up to 50% cover, and included large stands of the endangered Elkhorn Coral, Acropora palmata.

The Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean (2004) by World Resources Institute rated all the reefs around Haiti to be threatened by human activities especially overfishing, poison fishing, watershed-based sources of sediment and pollution. Extensive land clearing and poor agricultural practices have led to dramatic erosion problems threatening over 90% of the reefs. Haiti’s coastal resources are the most heavily exploited and poorly managed in the Caribbean, but are the main source of livelihood and sustenance for an estimated 30,000 fishers and their families. Fish also provide 50% of the protein for Haitian people. Fishers target mainly lobster, conch, and reef fishes using spearfishing, light fishing at night, and poisons (chlorine). Many of these activities are illegal, but law enforcement is limited. Without any conservation training or Marine Protected Areas, Haiti will remain in a downward spiral of overexploitation of reefs and reduced ability of reefs to provide protein or employment.

In 2010, Reef Check will again partner with the Haitian NGO, Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité and Reef Check Dominican Republic to implement a project to establish the first MPA in Haiti. Reef Check has a very strong coral reef monitoring and conservation program in the Dominican Republic, the other half of Hispaniola. RC DR is enthusiastic about assisting Haiti to improve marine conservation. RC DR is currently co-managing the La Caleta MPA near Santo Domingo so there will be good opportunities for cross-training.

If you would like to help Reef Check help improve reefs in Haiti so as to increase food supply and jobs, please consider a donation to our Haiti program.

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Reef Check Travels to Punta Sayulita, Mexico

By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

Over the holidays, Reef Check staff and volunteers made a preliminary survey of the reefs offshore of Punta Sayulita, Mexico, about 30 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. Our host, Kevin Roberts, wants to make an adopt-a-reef program the centerpiece of the environmental program at a residential housing development there ( The reefs in this area are a transitional environment between the pure tropical reefs further south and the temperate environment to the north. Tropical reef corals are common on the rocks of the offshore Marietta Islands. Also abundant are typical tropical fish fauna such as grouper and butterflyfish – Reef Check indicator species. But the few coral “patch” reefs found in the area were destroyed by hurricanes in the 1990s. This presents an opportunity for some restoration work with the common branching Pocillopora species for the “house reef.” Following a presentation that brought together local resident divers at the “Beach House,” Reef Check is now working on a revised set of indicators for this part of the Pacific Ocean and will be organizing a training for Sayulita scuba divers in the coming months, as well as setting up a program with the local school. In addition to some beautiful reefs, divers in this area during December were rewarded with a continuous underwater soundtrack of the visiting Humpback whales.

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Catalina Islanders Survey Their Local Rocky Reefs

By Reef Check California Regional Manager Colleen Wisniewski

In January 2008, Reef Check California (RCCA) started working with marine science instructors at Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) to survey their local kelp forests. CIMI is part of Guided Discoveries, which operates three sites on Catalina Island, Astrocamp in the mountains of Idyllwild, and CIMI Tall Ship Expeditions out of Long Beach. Guided Discoveries was founded in 1978 and works with over 45,000 children annually in their various outdoor education programs. 

RC staffers Colleen Wisniewski and Cyndi Dawson both previously worked at CIMI and knew that these marine science instructors would make an excellent team of surveyors due to their extensive knowledge of the indicator species and their local reefs. These enthusiastic divers get the typical four-day training compressed into three days. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Their participation in RCCA helps connect them to a larger program that reaches beyond their small community on the island and makes them more aware of statewide marine management issues, which they can, in turn, share with their students. To date, we’ve held two trainings for the staff and have trained 21 Reef Checkers. This efficient team has adopted Torqua, a dive site between Avalon and Long Point, and has completed four surveys in the last two years. They are a self contained team in that they print their own data sheets, organize their own surveys and enter their own data. How great is that? They’ve even spotted Giant Sea Bass on their surveys as well as two invasive species of seaweed. We are training another group of CIMI staff members the first week in February and hope to add another survey site near Long Point.   

CIMI has been an amazing partner organization. Not only do they successfully survey their local reefs, they also donate their facilities for our annual staff retreat each February. We also worked with them this past summer to shoot an episode of SciGirls, which is expected to air on PBS in March.  Details on both of these events will follow in upcoming issues of the Transect Line. We look forward to another successful year with CIMI in 2010!

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Reef Check California Update

By Reef Check California Director of Science Cyndi Dawson

The year 2010 came roaring in with a bang with some incredible weather up and down the state. It was quite a thing to see the arrival of El Niño conditions and we all saw the results over the last few weeks of January with a barrage of storms that lined up in the Pacific that came one after another. El Niño conditions occur when temperatures in the equatorial Pacific rise above average and persist at that level for 3 months or more. You can visit NOAA’s website to get detailed information on El Niño.

El Niño events in the past have been linked to lower ocean productivity off California because it limits the conditions that cause upwelling. Upwelling brings nutrient rich cooler water close to shore and is the corner stone of our vibrant kelp forest ecosystems off California. When there are fewer nutrients available in the water, this affects everything from plankton right on up the food chain to whales. As divers, we like the warm water that El Niño brings to central and northern California and in southern California, El Niño can bring increased reproductive success and output for warmer water species like lobster. It will be interesting to see if during this upcoming survey season we can pick up any decreases in rockfish and kelp recruitment (i.e. less baby rockfish and less dense kelp) in the upper half of the state as well as maybe an increase in small lobsters in southern California. Meteorologists are still unclear on the intensity of this El Niño but as you can see from the figure of the ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) Index below there is a wide range in intensities. The red sections in the graph represent El Niño events that are characterized by warm water and the blue sections represent the Southern Oscillation (a.k.a La Niña) events which are characterized by cold water. The most significant El Niño on record is the 1982-83 El Niño. I remember my dad catching albacore tuna off the beach in Bodega Bay in northern California during that one, and it will be interesting to see how this one progresses.

Starting on January 30, Reef Check will be part of an exhibit at the Pacific Coast Natural History Museum entitled the “World of Fishes.” This exhibit was organized by well known Ichthyologists Drs. Dave Greenfield and Gregor Cailliet. This exhibit highlights the anatomy, physiology, habitats, and on-going research being done by local researchers. It is a great opportunity to present Reef Check’s work alongside other scientific researchers and we are honored to take part. The opening reception will be held January 30 from 5 – 7 pm and all are invited to attend.

We are also continuing to get RCCA data out there to ensure it is getting used. You can now find RCCA data on the Hopkins Marine Station Marine Life Observatory. This site is administered by Stanford University from Hopkins Marine Station located on the Monterey Bay and makes available consistent long-term data for establishing a scientific baseline on which to evaluate the ecological health of the local marine ecosystem.

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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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 do we use a plumb line?

In a Reef Check survey on a coral reef, three separate surveys are carried out – fish, invertebrates and substrate. The latter focuses on determining the percentage “cover” of sand, rock, rubble, live and dead coral and other substrate types. During the substrate survey, the type of substrate is recorded every 0.5m along the transect line to provide an estimate of cover. Often the transect line is suspended above the seabed and typically will swing back and forth with the waves and current. By dropping a weighted string called a plumb line at each 0.5m mark along the transect line, the survey personnel minimize any observer bias that could occur if the data collector chose a particular spot to collect the data. The data collector can simply line up the plumb line with the half meter mark and drop it – even without looking — then look to see where it landed. The plumb line also speeds up the data collection process so is a very helpful tool. A Reef Check plumb line can be constructed using a 1.5m long cotton or nylon string with a wrist loop at one end and a 0.5cm nut at the other.

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Widgets for Reefs: RC Partners With SharkBreak

SharkBreak, the website designed to raise awareness for ocean preservation, and Reef Check are partnering to promote the conservation of reefs through fun online tools called widgets. Advocates can easily embed these widgets into their blog, website, or social network comments to show their support for Reef Check and reef conservation. There are three backgrounds available and five widget designs which include a shark, a dolphin, a killer whale, a puffer fish, and a clown fish. To learn more click here.

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