The Transect Line – November/December 2013 Newsletter Archive
Happy Holidays from Reef Check & Thank You for Another Successful Year! Biosphere Expeditions Welcomes Protection for Unique Marine Ecosystem in Musandam, Oman
Reef Check Launches Adopt-A-Reef Partnership with Edison International Reef Check Hong Kong Releases 2013 Results
Mysterious Disease Affecting Sea Stars along the Pacific Coast of North America Reef Check Italia’s EcoExpedition to Bangka, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

Happy Holidays from Reef Check & Thank You for Another Successful Year!
Many generous supporters like you came together this year with a shared sense of purpose and a common goal: to save our reefs and oceans. We could not be more thankful for your support or more proud of what we have accomplished together. We could not have done this important work without you!

Thanks to your help, Reef Check has now trained and certified over 30 Reef Check EcoDivers in Haiti − the first local citizen scientists with marine biology training in the country. These EcoDivers are now prepared to help monitor and manage a new Marine Protected Area network that we are proposing for the country, based on our surveys of over 1000 km of coral reef during the past three years.

This year we also launched a kids program to get younger children into the water to learn about ocean critters and to swim and snorkel. Over 60 kids have participated so far, including 30 earthquake orphans.

Reef Check has teams in over 90 countries and territories doing similar work around the world. With your continued support, we can reverse the trend of coral damage, protect the remaining healthy reefs and rehabilitate those that have been damaged.

Haiti now has two teams of EcoDivers surveying reefs and promoting conservation

Here in California, we trained over 200 new volunteer divers and our teams tracked the health of rocky reef ecosystems at over 80 sites. We released the 136 page “Status of Rocky Reef Ecosystems in California” report covering our first six years of scientific monitoring. This report documented the initial positive results of the Marine Protected Area network in California as measured by our volunteer citizen scientists.

In the coming year, we need your financial support to continue our important work to protect ocean health. Remember, for every dollar donated, it is multiplied many times by the work of thousands of volunteers in California and around the world.

Your gift today, either by making a donation or becoming a Premium member, will help support our efforts in conservation, education, and research. Thank you!

Reef Check Launches Adopt-A-Reef Partnership with Edison International
Edison employees and RC California volunteer divers
Photo: Chris Glaeser

By Geoffrey Ravenhill, Reef Check Development Director

Reef Check recently partnered with Edison International to launch the Catalina Adopt-A-Reef partnership to help survey and protect the reefs and kelp forests at Casino Point Reef, Catalina Island, one of Southern California’s Channel Islands. An Edison International grant of $20,000 helps to fund the program’s ocean surveys and educational outreach. This is the latest in a growing list of Adopt-A-Reef partnerships, which continue to highlight the importance of our partnerships with local communities, other non-profits and corporate supporters to conserve reefs around the world. “If our reefs are not healthy, then ultimately we will have problems,” said Colleen Wisniewski, Reef Check Southern California regional manager. “Even if you don't eat seafood, if our reefs are suffering, this will have a cascade effect and will have a negative impact on our lives. Our planet is mostly covered by water and we need to take care of our coastal resources.”

Reef Check and Edison International held the Catalina Adopt-A-Reef launch event on Saturday, November 16th. A group of 35 volunteer divers – including 15 employees from Edison International – dipped into the waters off Catalina Island for two dives to help survey and collect data from this beautiful California reef. During the first dive, Edison staff had the opportunity to learn firsthand how Reef Check volunteers collect data and enter them into Reef Check’s database. The data are analyzed and used to improve the health of California’s oceans. During the second dive, Edison volunteers were given the opportunity to collect their own data and count the various fish, invertebrates and seaweed they found. “Edison International has a very strong presence along the coast of California,” said Kim Anthony, Southern California Edison (SCE) senior marine biologist, who attended the Catalina dive. “We want to make sure that at the same time that we are using these resources, we are giving back and mitigating for any impacts that we may have on the Coast.”

Reef Check's Colleen Wisniewski and Evan Birenbaum, SCE Project Manager and Reef Check Board Member; Photo: Chris Glaeser

Over the past few years, the California State Fish and Game Commission has created Marine Protected Areas along California’s coastline. Each year, Reef Check monitors about 80 sites both in and outside of these protected areas. Edison employee Evan Birenbaum has loved the ocean since he was a kid and first learned to scuba dive at Casino Point Reef. So far he’s gone on over 170 dives. As president of EcoIQ – an Edison International employee resource group that helped to organize the dive – and a board member of Reef Check, Birenbaum is putting his diving knowledge to good use. “I always wonder what I might find living on these reefs when I dive,” he said. “Every time I dive I have a new experience, whether it’s seeing a new type of fish or plant life.” As a project manager for SCE’s Environmental Strategy & Corporate Responsibility division, Birenbaum is grateful to be able to work for a company that believes in the importance of protecting the environment. “By working with and supporting organizations such as Reef Check, Edison is protecting vital ecosystems that will help sustain life making the world a better place to live in, not only for our generation, but for future generations to come.”

Reef Check is seeking more corporate partners to adopt reefs anywhere in California. “Being a good example of marine stewardship will hopefully ignite the interest of other corporate partners,” said Wisniewski. For more information on Reef Check’s Adopt-A-Reef program, please visit Click here for SCE’s coverage of the Catalina Adopt-A-Reef event, including a short video.

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Mysterious Disease Affecting Sea Stars along the Pacific Coast of North America
A leather star (Dermasterias imbricata) just beginning to show signs of the disease, seen on San Juan Island in October 2013; Photo: Keith Rootsaert

By Megan Wehrenberg, Reef Check California's Central/North Coast Regional Manager

The past few months have not been kind to sea stars along the Pacific coast of the US and Canada. A mysterious withering or wasting syndrome is sweeping down the coastline infecting sea stars seen in both the intertidal zone and in the shallow subtidal (60ft deep and less). The first sign a star is infected is the development of small lesions on their outer bodies and an overall deflated look. The lesions grow and their tissue continues to deteriorate, causing arms to fall off. In the end the stars more or less disintegrate, often within just a few days. Several species are being affected including ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus), giant-spined stars (Pisaster giganteus), sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides), sun stars (Solaster stimpsoni), among others.

This is not the first time coastal California has seen a decimation of sea star populations. Major die-offs of ochre stars in southern California occurred during 1983-1984 and again in 1997-1998. The cause of the infection has been unclear. Past pathological studies have indicated a bacterium (Vibrio) as well as a virus might be the cause of the disease, and the two episodes in southern California were both associated with warm water events. Even though this year’s outbreak did occur during the warmer time of the year, this has not been a particularly warm year for Pacific coast waters.

While notable sea star die-offs have occurred in the last few decades, this year’s outbreak is of concern for several reasons: 1) previously a single species has been affected as opposed to seven now affected; 2) past occurrences have been geographically localized while this year, the Pacific coast from Alaska to San Diego has been affected; and 3) this is the first time sea stars have been affected in cooler waters off Washington and Alaska. Interestingly, a smaller outbreak has also been reported in the Atlantic off the coast of Rhode Island and Maine, however, it is unknown whether it is linked to the west coast outbreak in any way.

A diseased sun star (Solaster stimpsoni) seen on San Juan Island in October 2013; Photo: Keith Rootsaert

Since earlier this summer a research monitoring group called PISCO (Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Study of the Coastal Oceans) has been tracking the spread of the disease at their study sites and by collecting reports from the general public. Turning to citizens has been a successful way to obtain information over a much broader geographic area, from both on land and underwater.

Reef Check California has added the task of noting the presence/absence of diseased sea stars to our reef monitoring surveys. Since finding out about the disease, volunteers observed 25 sites from Sonoma County to San Diego and the Channel Islands. Reef Check volunteers have also been observing reefs during their own recreational dives and sending in any sightings. It is a situation in which the more eyes that are on the water the better we will understand what is happening.

Sea stars play an important ecological role in the marine environment, particularly in the intertidal where they have been identified as “keystone” predators, a predator that has an exceptionally large influence on the distributions of their prey. Because of this, ecological changes are likely to occur due to the die-off, though the extent is difficult to predict. Monitoring programs such as PISCO and Reef Check track ecological changes over time, providing important data, not only on sea star populations, but also of their habitats, predators, and prey. Time will tell what changes may occur and Reef Check volunteers will be in the water to track them.

To report sightings of diseased or healthy sea stars:

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Biosphere Expeditions Welcomes Protection for Unique Marine Ecosystem in Musandam, Oman
By Biosphere Expeditions

In two secluded bays in the coral-rich waters of the Musandam peninsula in Oman, all fishing except local handline fishing has been banned by a new ministerial decree. This significant step forward in the conservation of the beauty and resources of this relatively untouched marine area has been welcomed by the research organization and Reef Check EcoExpedition partner that has spearheaded the underwater research effort and campaign towards greater protection, Biosphere Expeditions. Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of the organization, talked about the work Biosphere Expeditions has been doing in the area since 2008: “This area has a high coral coverage at nearly 60 percent of the seabed. This is greater than that of most reefs around the world, and the Musandam reefs are certainly the best in the region. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ (MoAF) decision prohibits the use of all kinds of nets and cages, and any other fishing equipment, except handlines. This is a wise and important step in ensuring the survival of this unique marine ecosystem and natural jewel in Oman’s crown.”

A senior official at the Marine Sciences and Fisheries Centre, on whose recommendations such decisions are taken, said that both the Khor Najd and Khor Hablain bay areas are rich in corals, and fishing would end up destroying them. “The destruction of corals means severe damage to the marine life in the area. So this measure not only protects reefs, but also helps in sustainability of marine resources.”

“We could not agree more”, says Hammer, “and we are delighted that our voice has been heard, that our reports have been read and our recommendations have been heeded.” But he also added a note of caution, saying that without further intervention, the low numbers of fish and invertebrate populations in the area could mean that any additional stress may lead to coral die-off. “The general fishing ban announced by MoAF is certainly a progressive and welcome step in the right direction”, says Hammer. “Moving forward we recommend that a Marine Protected Area (MPA), or a network of MPAs, is created in north Musandam. We also urge rapid action before what is at the moment still a unique natural treasure for Oman is degraded and lost. If more habitat is lost or degraded before full MPA protection is implemented, there is a good chance that fish and invertebrate populations will not be able to recover from their current very low numbers and that the current high coral coverage will be lost. As a result, the decrease in some fish and invertebrate families is likely to have future negative impacts on substrate composition and the reef ecosystem as a whole. This in turn will threaten livelihoods and treasured lifestyles around Musandam”, warns Dr. Hammer.

The next stage, said Dr. Hammer, is to obtain formal support to extend protection from fishing bans to a full MPA. Biosphere Expeditions will continue its research, now including studying the effects of the fishing ban. Ultimately, given funding and government support, Biosphere Expeditions plans to extend its efforts to comprehensive surveys (including for example, fisheries landings, stakeholder consultations, etc) and a roadmap towards an MPA.

The next Biosphere Expeditions/Reef Check EcoExpedition to Musandam is scheduled for October 26 – November 1, 2014. Click here for details.

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Reef Check Hong Kong Releases 2013 Results
By Reef Check Hong Kong

In November, Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) announced that the Reef Check in Hong Kong has continued to yield encouraging results this year, showing that local corals are generally in healthy and stable condition and exhibit a rich diversity of species.

Hong Kong Reef Check 2013, a four-month exercise starting in June, covered the marine areas in the eastern part of Hong Kong extending from Tung Ping Chau in the north to the Ninepin Group in the south, including a number of sites of ecological importance. Among the 33 survey sites, nine are within the Hoi Ha Wan, Yan Chau Tong and Tung Ping Chau marine parks.

A variation in coral coverage, ranging from 20 percent to 78.1 percent, was recorded among the survey sites. Twenty sites, including all those in the marine parks, recorded high coral coverage (above 50 percent). Among all sites, Coral Beach at Hoi Ha Wan recorded the highest coral coverage of 78.1 percent.

Most of the sites were found to have high species diversity. Wrasses, groupers, butterflyfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and cowries were species commonly found in the survey sites. Most of the groupers, sweetlips, snappers and wrasses were found in survey sites at Port Shelter and north-eastern waters including the three marine parks.

Coral bleaching and some coral damage were observed at a few sites but the impact was minor and localized.

Fifty dive teams comprising more than 580 volunteer divers from different sectors of the community took part in the Reef Check this year. The AFCD awarded souvenirs and certificates to the teams and the participating scientists to recognize their contributions.

The first Reef Check was held by the Hong Kong Reef Check Foundation in 1997. The AFCD has collaborated with the Foundation to conduct the survey since 2000. The AFCD will continue to organize Reef Check activities to collect important information necessary for devising conservation and management measures to protect the precious corals as well as to raise public awareness on the ecological importance of corals and the need for coral conservation.

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Reef Check Italia’s EcoExpedition to Bangka, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Submitted by Reef Check Italy's Gianfranco Rossi

The Reef Check protocol was designed following the recognition that there were no adequate data to establish a “baseline” of the health of the world’s coral reefs. The greatest advantage of the protocol was the involvement of volunteer scuba divers, led by marine biologists, who could make possible the collection of data otherwise not obtainable.

The first global survey of coral reefs took place in 1997. Subsequently, the protocol has received important acknowledgments both in terms of the number of surveys collected and in data quality; many researchers have confirmed their value and published works citing the database of Reef Check. The protocol has proved to be very effective not only in the involvement of passionate volunteers eager to cooperate in the preservation of their favorite reefs, but also of young students and graduates in marine biology who have been able to take advantage of a suitable method to perfect their skills as specialists of the marine environment. Very often degree courses end without a student acquiring firsthand knowledge on coral reefs although they possess a sound basis to understand the functioning of these unique ecosystems.

The expeditions organized by Reef Check Italia Onlus at the Coral Eye Research Outpost on the island of Bangka (Indonesia) have confirmed the value of this experience in their training of young Italian marine biologists. By using three different kinds of transects, participants have been able to learn the useful basics to measure the percentage of seabed cover by different substrate types, like live and dead corals, sponges, ascidians or algae, and to identify several kinds of fishes and invertebrates. These are useful indicator species of impacts both of anthropogenic or natural origin.

During the two expeditions held so far, the most recent being in October 2013, data were collected that have provided for the first time a baseline of the health status of the coral reefs of Bangka. The involvement of Reef Check Indonesia and their Program Manager Derta Prabuning, has also inspired the launch of a partnership that in the future could lead to the involvement of the local population in education programs aimed at the formation of young Indonesians to gain awareness of the value of their reefs. With a more aware generation we could intervene and prevent the practices causing destruction of reefs that are still widely used throughout the area.

For more information on the activities of Reef Check Italy, visit

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