The Transect Line – May/June 2016 Newsletter Archive
Reef Check California Celebrates the Life of Bill Golden (aka Billy Ray Golden) Reef Check Iran Relaunches with EcoDiver Training on Kish Island
Finding Dory, Saving Nemo: Problems Facing Marine Aquarium Fish Biosphere Expeditions Assesses Whale Shark Tourism in New Report
Join Us September 15 to Honor Our Heroes of the Reef Reef Check Italia Publishes Paper in Aquatic Conservation
Bleaching Update from Reef Check Australia    

Reef Check California Celebrates the Life of Bill Golden (aka Billy Ray Golden)
Bill is all smiles after a Reef Check dive; Photo: Colleen Wisniewski

By Craig Shuman, Reef Check California Founding Director

The Reef Check Family and California ocean community are deeply saddened by the recent passing of our dear friend and colleague, Bill Golden. Bill was one of those individuals whose infectious passion for the ocean and ear to ear grin was enough to make anyone smile on their worst day. An accomplished scientific diver, it didn’t take much to convince Bill to join the Reef Check California team to assist with our initial trainings. Often first in the water to lay transects and last one out after retrieving gear, Bill would jump right into assisting trainees with their data sheets and species identification while the rest of us were still trying to get warm. When not diving, Bill was often out on a boat or kayak trying to catch the big one or spending time in the desert or mountains.

Bill jumps in for another dive; Photo: Derek Smith

Bill was instrumental in the successful development of the Reef Check California program. Not only did he provide valuable diving and scientific support in the field, he also was responsible for developing, building and maintaining our early data systems. Working under contract in our first year of operation, Bill developed a state-of-the-art data entry procedure and database. He then continued to work as data manager for a number of years to enter and archive all the data that was coming in from our survey teams across the state.

One of the greatest things about Reef Check is that it brings together like-minded individuals who are passionate and committed to the ocean. We all benefit and grow from the relationships we develop spending time together with incredible individuals out on the ocean, but we also suffer greatly when one of our own is prematurely taken from us. Bill will be greatly missed, but his memory will serve as inspiration to all who were fortunate to have crossed his path.

“Bill really introduced me to the northern Channel Islands and we spent many days at sea completing survey dives at beautiful sites around the islands. Bill was always ready for any challenge, from camping on the back deck of the boat in the rain, helping me shop for provisions for our trips (always selecting the best food), diving for our anchor stuck in the rocks below, getting an underwater hug by a harbor seal at Anacapa Island or grilling up a tri-tip at the end of a long day in the water. I’ll always be reminded of Bill on all my Channel Islands dives and will be smiling through my scuba regulator at the thought of it.”
– Colleen Wisniewski, Regional Manager for Reef Check California

Finding Dory, Saving Nemo: Problems Facing Marine Aquarium Fish

By Dr. Gregor Hodgson, Reef Check Executive Director

How many of your friends own a home aquarium with tropical fish? It is a popular home hobby and over 10 million Americans own an aquarium. When Finding Dory, the sequel to the film Finding Nemo was released this month, many environmentalists worried that we would have a repeat of the Nemo disaster when thousands of kids tried to flush their clownfish down the toilet to “save” them by returning them to the sea.

But there is a more serious environmental concern regarding marine aquarium fish and that is fisheries management. For large food fish like tuna, national and international management organizations try their best to track both the size of tuna populations and the size of the fish. Using sophisticated models, scientists calculate what they think is a reasonable number of fish that can be caught each year and these are allocated to fishermen. Although our track record in fisheries management is terrible, generally the failures are due to politics and not the scientific recommendations.

Like tuna, most tropical saltwater fish are captured alive, but unlike tuna they are kept alive and transported from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to the US and Europe for eventual sale to consumers. Compared to the $30 billion world tuna trade, the entire marine aquarium trade is estimated to total less than $100 million. So it doesn't get as much attention, and the fact is that 90% of marine aquarium fish are caught from unregulated and unmanaged fisheries. In places like Hawai’i and Australia, the fisheries are regulated.

Although the entire marine aquarium trade is small compared to tuna, the prices of some rare species of marine aquarium fish are the highest of any fish in the world – exceeding $100,000 per pound. Even relatively common fish like the Blue Tang (Dory) could fetch $100 per pound!

Boy on reef with cyanide; photo by J Jeffords

In addition, sadly, almost all tropical marine aquarium fish are caught using sodium cyanide mixed in water as a “knock out” chemical to disable the fish but not kill it. In the Philippines, for example, a diving fisherman will use a bottle of cyanide solution to squirt the poison into a crevice on the coral reef where a small fish like a Blue Tang, is hiding. If done properly, the fish stops swimming and is easily scooped into a net, but the cyanide also kills the corals and other animals surrounding the crevice. On reefs where cyanide fishing is carried out every day, the reef can be damaged. Although cyanide fishing is illegal in most countries, the laws have been difficult to enforce. So the damage continues, and without fisheries management plans, the populations of marine aquarium fish are often reduced below “safe” levels.

In addition to problems at the source, there can be problems when the live fish are transported long distances by airplane. A typical flight from Manila to Los Angeles takes 15 hours. Buyers and sellers don't want any fish to die but accidents happen, and cold temperature and lack of oxygen can cause fish to die in transit.

There are also problems in the importing countries including the US. Like learning to drive, learning to keep tropical marine fish alive in a home aquarium requires special knowledge and training. Unlike clownfish, which are fairly easy to keep in captivity for several years, the Blue Tang requires special handling and food. Some fish are almost impossible to keep alive. But unlike driving a car, no license is required to buy even the most difficult-to-care-for tropical marine fish. As a result, many fish die in home aquaria. In a small study carried out by one of my former UCLA students in Sydney, Australia about 50% of the fish bought by home aquarium owners died within two weeks of purchase. Even if a larger study were to show it is only 10%, this is a lot of dead reef fish when over 12 million fish are imported into the US every year.

Given that some fisheries are formally managed using science and given that Reef Check is a science-based conservation organization, over ten years ago we accepted an invitation from conservation partners to try to work out a better management system for marine aquarium fisheries. We worked on this problem until 2008, and had some successes and some failures.

On the success side we were able to develop a suite of survey methods, a fisheries model and strategies to properly manage marine aquarium fisheries. These were tested in several countries and worked well. We also found that we could engage aquarium fishermen in setting up Marine Protected Areas to help build up their fish stocks and this improved stocks of both aquarium and food fish. Our partners had success in training fishermen to catch fish using nets and without cyanide.

Now, many environmentalists believe that the marine aquarium trade should be shut down because these are beautiful wild-caught animals much like an Amazon parrot or a Burmese python. I understand this point of view, but most marine aquarium fish species are extremely abundant, so if we ban the marine aquarium trade, to be fair, should we ban all fishing?

Assuming that the trade will continue for the near future, what are the major issues that need to be addressed now to make it “sustainable” in the sense that we are not jeopardizing healthy populations of any species?

  1. Reduce wild catch: Figure out how to breed more marine aquarium fish through aquaculture. Only a few have been solved.
  2. Reduce cyanide use: Crack down on cyanide use by providing resources to the enforcement agencies specifically for this purpose. Provide net-catch training for 1000s of fishermen by using training of trainers.
  3. Enforce the Lacy Act: It is illegal to import anything obtained illegally in violation of the exporting country. Cyanide fishing is illegal in these countries. On March 9, 2016 a consortium of marine conservation groups filed a legal petition to force the US government to enforce the Lacy Act.
  4. Improve fisheries management: Use the MACTRAQ methods developed by Reef Check to better track and manage marine aquarium fisheries in exporting countries.
  5. Reduce transport mortality: Regulate the transport of wild caught fish to maximize survival.
  6. Reduce post-purchase mortality: Retailers should use well-known rankings of difficulty to control the purchase of each fish species by requiring the labeling of fish, and limiting purchases to buyers who have been trained and certified to keep each level of marine fish.

As a scientist, I’d like to believe that we can use science to successfully guide management of marine aquarium fisheries. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Cebu, Philippines — a center of cyanide fishing, I am familiar with enforcement issues and I know how poor the coastal fishermen are. I know that if they can’t make money from aquarium fishing they will put even more effort into fishing for food, further damaging the reefs. And at the same time, I wonder how many kids have been poisoned inadvertently by fishermen mixing cyanide solution in their homes? If the trade is going to continue, we all need to do a better job of solving the problems noted above.

Join Us September 15 to Honor Our Heroes of the Reef

Please join the Reef Check Foundation on Thursday, September 15th to celebrate the reefs, oceans and Reef Check’s 20th Anniversary! Reef Check's 2016 Save the Reefs, Save the Oceans Gala will be on the beach at the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica. The evening will feature fun music, unique auction items, delicious food, and an opportunity to meet our amazing honorees and some of the thousands of volunteer Reef Check EcoDivers who monitor California and tropical reefs as part of Reef Check's citizen scientist programs.

We will recognize the contributions of our “Heroes of the Reef” each having demonstrated an exemplary commitment to ocean conservation:

Michael Weber
Poseidon Award
In appreciation of his dedication to marine science and conservation in California and around the world through his conservation books and work with the Resources Legacy Fund, Center for Marine Conservation and the California Fish and Game Commission

Matthias Hammer
Reef Stewardship Award
In appreciation of his founding of Biosphere Expeditions, which has inspired adventurers including Reef Check divers, to protect and conserve the environment for over 15 years

Julian Hyde
Hero of the Reef Award
In honor of his founding and managing of Reef Check Malaysia for 10 years and his service as Reef Check Regional Coordinator for the Pacific

Ruben Torres
Hero of the Reef Award
In honor of his founding and managing of Reef Check Dominican Republic since 2004 and his service as Reef Check Regional Coordinator for the Caribbean

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit

Sponsorship opportunities are available. We are also looking for donated items for our auction. Please contact or 1-310-305-4622 for information on how to participate.

Bleaching Update from Reef Check Australia
Submitted by Reef Check Australia

Since February, Reef Check Australia teams have been out to more than 40 sites along the Queensland Coast and on Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. You can see what our teams witnessed out in the field throughout Queensland with our field photo album.

In the midst of a whirlwind of fieldwork, we also finalized the report for our 2015/16 South East Queensland survey season. South East Queensland is home to numerous subtropical reefs, home to tropical, subtropical and temperate marine species. Results from 33 surveys conducted from September 2015 to May 2016 on sites from the Sunshine Coast to Gold Coast showed average hard coral cover of 20%, a reminder that these often over-looked reefs host important coral communities! Almost every survey recorded some evidence of coral bleaching (90% of surveys), but only affecting on average a small portion of the population (7%). Follow-up surveys on sites with higher levels of bleaching later in the year will help capture any evidence of coral mortality.

Our Great Barrier Reef survey season is still underway and we'll be sharing more detailed updates later this year.

Reports on the largest recorded global coral bleaching event continue to pour in around Australia and around the world. On the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), results from surveys conducted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and partners indicate that the overall coral mortality on the Great Barrier Reef is 22 percent. Much of that die-off (85% of observed mortality) has occurred between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island, 250 kilometres north of Cairns. Impacts vary widely across different reefs.

We've been getting lots of questions about what the “real” story is about bleaching on the GBR… but as you've probably noticed, it is a complicated story to tell. The GBR is the size of 70 million football fields, with depths from 1 to 2000+ metres, including 3000 reefs, and 600+ species of coral. The impacts of coral bleaching vary across this matrix of different regions and habitat types. Some areas will fare OK and some areas are/will be devastated.

Reefs are complex ecosystems and coral bleaching impacts can be considered at the colony, site and reef level. Different types of coral have different sensitivities to heat stress and even corals of the same species in a small area can demonstrate different responses to bleaching. At a single research site, surveys document the impact of bleaching at the population level (e.g. if 10 out of 100 corals are impacted, that's 10% of the population). Even within a reef, some shallow areas may be heavily impacted and other deeper or highly-flushed areas may show lower levels of bleaching. Therefore surveying many different areas on the reef can provide a representative sample for overall impact at the reef level. This explains why you might hear about some varying numbers for the level of bleaching impact.

But the resounding message is clear–this is our call to action. It's not too late, but decisive progress in how we work together to look after reefs is critical. We need to relieve immediate reef pressures such as water quality issues or localised overfishing. We need to support investment in the systems, policies and collaborations that manage reefs. We need to help find better ways to quickly document and understand major events that impact reef health (citizen science can help!)

We are dedicated to reefs and we challenge you to look for ways to transform your love for reefs into tangible actions in your life. Instead of pointing fingers, now is time for people to unite and work together.

Reef Check Iran Relaunches with EcoDiver Training on Kish Island
By Reef Check EcoDiver Trainers Nikoo Cheheltani & Mohammad Hosseinpour

In April 2016, the Dive Persia Training Center organized an EcoDiver Course on Kish Island, Iran with the support of the Kish Free Zone Organization, Kish Environmental Organization and Kish Seashell Diving Academy. As part of an effort to train more Iranian EcoDivers and to encourage more divers to participate in Reef Check monitoring, the course was offered for free.

The course was conducted over two full days by two EcoDiver Trainers and Scuba Instructors from Dive Persia: Mohammad Hosseinpour (MSc. Ichthyology) and Nikoo Cheheltani (MSc. Marine Biology). The first day involved a classroom session which included an introduction to Reef Check, course presentations and an explanation of Reef Check methods. Even some non-divers participated in the classroom session to get familiar with the course. On the second day, which involved a practical session, diver participants were separated into four groups and asked to identify Reef Check target species and practice Reef Check methods underwater. The training went well and all student divers passed the tests.

The Persian Gulf has very unique coral reefs. Corals in the Persian Gulf have a high thermal tolerance; they typically can tolerate temperatures as high as 36° C during summer and as low as 13° C in winter. Most coral reefs in temperate climates, however, can withstand temperatures only as high as 29° C before they bleach. Therefore researchers and marine biologists believe that genetic clues in the coral reefs of the Persian Gulf may help coral reefs around the world survive global warming.

Not many Reef Check surveys have been conducted in Iran since 2012. However, we hope that by holding more courses like this, the number of surveys will increase and more data will be collected by EcoDivers of Iran – especially by trained scuba instructors, dive center staff and local divers. We set up the Reef Check Iran team to conduct Reef Check surveys in all of the islands around the Persian Gulf. In the near future, with the help of Iranian EcoDivers, marine biologists, scientists and the Reef Check Iran team, we are planning to provide a separate regional Reef Check Field Guide for Persian Gulf coral reefs.

To join the Reef Check Iran team and become a Reef Check EcoDiver, please contact Mohammad Hosseinpour at +98-912-2604560 or Nikoo Cheheltani at +98-0937-6069998, or email us at

Biosphere Expeditions Assesses Whale Shark Tourism in New Report
Submitted by Biosphere Expeditions

Biosphere Expeditions is excited to announce that the 2015 Maldives coral reef & whale shark report is now available.

This report is particularly important, “as the El Niño event has continued at unprecedented levels into 2016, it is important that we continue to survey to understand the long-term resilience of areas we monitor.” It also highlights an “out of control” and therefore unsustainable whale shark tourism industry that needs to be “reined in.”

The report covers the results of the September 2015 survey and concludes that “at present the Maldivian reefs surveyed do not seem to be suffering from significant levels of bleaching and disease. The low incidence of coral damage recorded seems to be due to storm damage and Drupella predation…It is crucial to keep a lookout on Ari Atoll reefs as well, given the imminent threat of bleaching.”

Additionally, “Maldivian local communities are only slowly becoming more aware of human impacts on reefs…Given the very real threats to coral reefs and the rapid pace of change, communities, politicians and government must be more proactive in managing the coral reefs of the Maldives properly and sustainably.”

Regarding whale shark tourism in South Ari Marine Protected Area, the report states that “although the area is a Marine Protected Area, as of yet it is merely a paper park. Despite suggestions for regulations being put forward by the MWSRP (Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme), there is neither a proper management plan that all the stakeholders agree on, nor a governing body actively involved in enforcing these regulations. In most cases, it is clear that some of these tourists are either not given a safety or environmental briefing about the code of conduct while swimming with sharks, or they do not care, or both.” However, there are also numerous examples worldwide of well-managed MPAs engaging in sustainable income generation through interaction with nature and the presence of whale sharks; one example mentioned is Ningaloo in Australia, with strictly enforced codes of conduct.

It is also noted that where officialdom is failing, civil society and committed Maldivians are stepping in. Ever since Biosphere Expeditions started running its annual research cruise to the Maldives in 2011, it has educated and trained Maldivians in Reef Check survey techniques. This culminated in the first-ever all-Maldivian reef survey in November 2014 and other community-based conservation initiatives.

For more information, you can access the full report here: 2015 Maldives coral reef and whale shark report (12mb)

Win a place to join a unique SCUBA diving coral reef conservation expedition to Oman, the Maldives or Malaysia!

In partnership with Reef Check and the Marine Conservation Society, Biosphere Expeditions is offering a free place on an expedition to Musandam (Oman), the Maldives or Tioman Island (Malaysia). Each trip includes training and certification as a Reef Check EcoDiver. – See more at:

Reef Check Italia Publishes Paper in Aquatic Conservation
Reef Check Italia is pleased to announce the release of their latest paper entitled: Diving for science – science for diving: volunteer scuba divers support science and conservation in the Mediterranean Sea, published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

Written by Carlo Cerrano, Martina Milanese and Massimo Ponti, the paper presents outcomes and some management-relevant applications of the citizen science initiative Reef Check Italia, and a profile of the volunteers themselves, including diving experience and motivations for volunteering.

The following is the abstract from the paper. If you would like to read the full paper, you may access it here or contact the authors for a copy.


1. Recreational diving engages 20 million people worldwide. Most of the literature refers to tropical destinations but at least 1 million dives per year take place in Mediterranean marine protected areas (MPAs).

2. Divers may negatively affect underwater habitats. However, if effectively engaged, they can contribute to science, territorial management and more sustainable local economies.

3. During 2006–2014, volunteers trained by the not-for-profit organization Reef Check Italia (RCI) completed 24714 observations and 2417 dives in six Mediterranean countries, contributing to a dataset that supports scientific papers about climate change, rare and non-indigenous species (NIS), and informs MPA management decision-making.

4. The wide range of opportunities offered by this dataset is illustrated with two examples relevant to marine conservation in the context of MPA management. They concern: (i) the spread of the NIS Caulerpa cylindracea along the Ligurian coasts, with a focus on Portofino MPA, and (ii) the distribution and abundance of protected species in the Portofino MPA.

5. A diver-focused survey showed that RCI volunteers are highly committed, and that participation in RCI activities has led to a better understanding of, and a sense of stewardship towards, favoured dive sites and the marine world. Knowing who volunteers are, and why they volunteer in their favourite sector, is crucial to designing citizen-science based projects able to achieve their multiple goals.

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