The Transect Line – January 2011 Newsletter Archive
  Newsletter Highlights
First Training & Surveys in Isla Magdalena, Baja California Sur, Mexico Technical Question of the Month: Butterfly fish vs Angel fish
Fish & Game Commission Adopts Plan for MPAs in Southern California New Additions to Sea Store
Reef Check California Update    
First Training & Surveys in Isla Magdalena, Baja California Sur, Mexico

By Reef Check California's North-Central Regional Manager Megan Wehrenberg

Members from three organizations- Reef Check (RC), the Mexican nonprofit Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), and the School for Field Studies (SFS) of Mexico- joined forces in November to conduct a training for a select group from the Isla Magdalena Fishing Cooperative. The Cooperative created a Marine Protected Area (MPA) within their fishing grounds to address declines in the populations of fished species. The most important commercial species include abalone, lobster, and sea cucumber; fishes are also harvested but mostly for personal consumption, and within the MPA boundaries no take of any species is allowed. RC staff traveled to Isla Magdalena to teach the fishermen how to scientifically monitor this new MPA so that they can track any related recoveries of species of interest. This program was to mirror the similar monitoring program that has been going since 2006 in Isla Natividad, also in Baja California.

On November 8th we arrived at San Carlos, a sleepy fishing town on Bahia Magdalena and the site of the SFS campus. This was our home and headquarters for the next three weeks. Campus life was in full swing with college students from around the US spending a semester learning abroad. It was great to interact with the students and instructors and to share with them a bit about what we were doing. The school was a perfect place to run the training from, with nearly all the comforts of home, and just meters away from a beautiful lagoon that filled with many birds and the colors of sunset each night.

During our first week we were diving, diving, diving! We spent time finalizing the species list for the protocol as well as looking for potential sites inside and outside the reserve that had similar substrate structure. We spent time with seasoned fishermen boating up and down the coast to get the lay of the (underwater) land. The diving logistics took some getting used to as well. Since the narrow mouth of Bahia Magdalena was a long boat ride away, the easiest way to get out to the open Pacific was to boat to the thinnest part of the barrier island, drive the boat onto a waiting trailer, and drive across the land to the beach on the other side. This works great in theory, but ensuring that a trailer is waiting, that the towing vehicle will be up and running, and that the conditions will be good on the other side turned out to be an art form.

The fishermen enrolled in the training had spent most of their lives in and underwater (many of them fish using hookah), however they were fairly new to scuba. They were open-water certified by Cyndi Dawson, former Reef Check staff member, in May of 2010 and spent minimal time practicing. Therefore, before we began the training we had a scuba refresher. Fortunately, having spent their lives in the water, they were excellent divers from the start! It was no time at all before we were heading into the classroom to begin the RC training. We spent the next week alternating between days in the classroom and underwater while the group learned the RC monitoring protocol and the associated species identification. It was really a treat working with guys who knew so much about the surrounding waters.

Comment on this article

Fish & Game Commission Adopts Plan for MPAs in Southern California

By Reef Check California's SoCal Volunteer Coordinator Laurel Fink

Southern California marine biodiversity has gained an edge in the fight for protection in the most exciting time for marine conservation and management in California’s history. On December 15, 2010, the CA Fish and Game Commission voted 3-2 to establish 36 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the southern California region, which encompasses the state waters from Point Conception to the U.S.- Mexico border. This was a historical decision that will help to conserve the unique and important marine resources in this highly populated coastal region. This decision ended a large-scale process of planning and designing these MPAs through public input and meetings of stakeholders, scientists, and fishermen working together over a 2-year planning period. The new reserves will protect 187 square miles of ocean habitat (including both marine reserves and conservation areas), increasing protection significantly, especially in Los Angeles County, where no marine reserves had been declared. 

The south coast study region is the third of five in the process of establishing a network of MPAs along the entire coast of California as mandated by the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). Having one of the most highly valued coastlines worldwide, the public input and involvement by different interest groups in this region was intense, with over 12,000 written comments submitted in the 2-year review process which included more than 50 days available for public comment. Protection along this coastline will enhance the many recreational opportunities, such as SCUBA diving, surfing, kayaking and fishing, that the ocean provides for millions of people living in southern California. In addition, it is hoped that these reserves will help keep the ocean healthy for future generations to enjoy such activities.

Reef Check and our volunteers have been involved in the MLPA process since its onset in providing the Department of Fish and Game with our scientifically-rigorous data collected along the coast of southern California since 2006. Several of our Reef Check survey sites lie within the new MPA boundaries, or directly outside of them, which will prove to be very useful to managers to determine changes in e.g. fish populations. Reef Check sites such as Casino Point, Paradise Point offshore Malibu, La Jolla Cove, and all of our sites off the coast of Laguna Beach (among several others) will now be protected within marine reserves. Please click on the map above to view the locations of the new southern California MPAs. 

On the North-Central coast, Reef Check recently helped to complete the first year of baseline monitoring in the newly established MPAs between Bodega Bay (Sonoma) and Point Arena in Mendocino County. RCCA is ready to help with the state mandated baseline monitoring of the MPAs when they will go into effect in southern California this year. As Reef Checkers, this is such an important time to be monitoring these reefs! Our volunteers are collecting truly critical data in terms of California’s marine management and conservation.

Comment on this article

Reef Check California Update
By Reef Check California Director Dr. Jan Freiwald

After a restful holiday break, Reef Check California is moving into its sixth year of monitoring California’s reefs. In the winter months before we start diving and surveying, we process last year’s data, review our survey protocols and make plans for the upcoming survey season. All of the data we collected over the 2010 season is now entered and ready to be viewed on our online Nearshore Ecosystem Database (NED) and we will release the new, updated database containing all five years of data this month. 

With five years of survey experience and the continual refinement of our monitoring protocol, we are at a point where we can give our protocol a thorough review and update. When updating a long-term monitoring protocol it is critical that the changes are made in a way that insures that data remain compatible with data collected in the past. Therefore, protocol changes have to be carefully considered, documented and data consistency has to be insured. This winter we are tackling this task of reviewing and updating our survey protocol to make data collection more efficient while insuring that data is compatible across all years.

Once this review is completed, and to prepare for the new survey season, we will have a Reef Check California retreat on Catalina at which all staff and instructors will familiarize themselves with the protocol changes and recalibrate their survey and training methods. After this annual event, we are ready to train and recertify volunteers for this year’s season and are looking forward to an exciting and successful year of surveying. This year we are planning on growing our monitoring network as we have done every year. We will specifically focus on surveying additional sites along the north coast of the state. We will launch the field season by training new and recertifying experienced Reef Checkers as the year progresses. Our training schedule is now available at Please take a look and sign up if you are interested in becoming a new Reef Check volunteer or would like to refresh your skills for this year’s season.

Comment on this article

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 – How do you distinguish a butterfly fish from an angel fish?

In a previous issue of The Transect Line we discussed why we monitor butterfly fish and not angels and other notable reef species. For beginning Reef Checkers, it may be difficult to distinguish between angels and butterfly fish – particularly small angels. In general, fish taxonomists (scientists who study species differences and name new species) use skeletal characteristics such as the number of bones in a particular fin to distinguish species. For Reef Check, we need to identify live fish while they are swimming past – and we don’t have time to count fin rays – if we were lucky enough to even see a fish with a fully extended fin.

While these two fish families (Chaetodontidae and Pomacanthidae) are superficially similar – there are major and consistent differences that allow us to easily count butterfly fish without confusing them with angels:

  • Color – all butterfly fish exhibit only a limited color scheme – white, black and yellow or orange. If you see some blue, green or most other colors, then this is not likely to be a butterfly fish.
  • Mouth – all butterfly fish have a tiny mouth just a few millimeters wide — shaped like eyebrow tweezers. Angel fish by contrast, have a relative wide mouth, designed to munch on mouthfuls of sponges, algae, jellyfish and soft corals. Because of this difference in mouth shape, angels have a relatively wide “face” when viewed head on whereas butterfly fish are thin-faced.
  • Gill cover spine – All angel fish have a reverse spine at the base of the gill cover. Butterfly fish don’t have this.
  • Size – maximum size of butterfly fish is about 25 cm (10 inches) long whereas angels can grow much larger – to more than double this.
  • Behavior – butterfly fish can be found in pairs or in large schools of thousands of fish. Angel fish are typically found in pairs or individually.

Following these tips, you will be able to easily differentiate butterfly fish from angels.

Comment on this article

New Additions to Sea Store

Reef Check enters 2011 with two new exciting products! Show your support and spread the word by wearing one of our great wristbands and sporting one of our beach towels the next time you hit the shore. You can feel good knowing you have made a valuable contribution to a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting our coral reefs.

The beach towel is 100% cotton and measures 5.5 feet x 3 feet.

And for Reef Check EcoDivers, you can tie your plumb line to the wristband during your tropical substrate surveys!