The Transect Line – October 2011 Newsletter Archive
New Laws in California & Marshall Islands Protect Sharks Technical Question of the Month: Halimeda & Coralline Algae
Mystery Abalone and Invertebrate Die-Off Along the Sonoma Coast of California Successful EcoExpedition in the Maldives
Save the Reefs, Save the Oceans Gala 2011 A Big Success! Reef Check Puerto Rico To Take Off After EcoDiver Training
Reef Check California Update Reef Check Australia Update

New Laws in California & Marshall Islands Protect Sharks

In October, California and The Republic of the Marshall Islands became the latest entities to pass laws protecting sharks.

California joined Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, CNMI, and Guam in banning the sale, trade, and possession of shark fins. It is estimated that 75 million sharks are killed each year for their fins and, in many cases, the fins are cut off while the sharks are alive and the animals are tossed back into the ocean to die. The ban in California goes into effect on January 1, 2012 but existing stocks of fins, such as those in possession by restaurants serving shark fin soup, can be used until January 2013. California is one of the largest consumers of shark fins outside of Asia.

Also this month, The Republic of the Marshall Islands established the world's largest shark sanctuary by ending commercial fishing of sharks in all 768,547 square miles of its Pacific waters. The law bans the sale, trade and possession of sharks, shark fins, or any other shark parts. Under the law, any shark caught accidentally by fishing vessels must be released, and large monetary fines between US$25,000 to US$200,000 can be assessed for anyone found to be fishing for sharks or in possession of shark fins. In addition, violators would be fined the market value of the product in their possession.

Read our previous story: An Asian-American Perspective on Shark Finning

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Mystery Abalone and Invertebrate Die-Off Along the Sonoma Coast of California

By Reef Check California Director Dr. Jan Freiwald

In late August dead red abalone and other invertebrates started washing up on beaches along the Sonoma coast of California. At the same time, Reef Check divers started reporting many dead or dying abalone on the shallow rocky reefs at many of our favorite dive sites. This sudden and unprecedented die-off was not limited to abalone — gumboot chitons, sea urchins and sea stars were also affected. This event coincided with one of the most intense algal blooms (red tides) seen in this region.

Plankton blooms are caused by the large numbers of microscopic planktonic algae (protists) which reach such high densities (15,000 per ml) that the water appears red.

As these events unfolded, Reef Check California teams, in collaboration with PISCO, were in Sonoma County to survey 32 reef sites as part of the baseline MPA monitoring for the MPAs that were established in 2010. In addition, a team of RC staff and volunteers went to the Sonoma coast for a long weekend of surveying to document the effects of the die-off on invertebrate populations in the shallow coves that we have been monitoring for six years now. Despite rough conditions, we were able to survey several sites where we recorded many fresh, empty abalone shells and our data from one of the hardest hit sites at Gerstle Cove showed a decline in abalone density since our last survey on September 24th 2011. In the fall of 2007, we observed a severe reduction of red abalone densities at this site as well. This reduction was accompanied by observations of empty abalone shells, not unlike what has been reported recently along the Sonoma coast.

No one yet knows what has caused the invertebrate die-offs in Sonoma. Some past localized events we recorded have been attributed to local oxygen depletion in the shallow and protected coves along this stretch of coast. When high densities of phytoplankton die, bacteria feeding on them can severely reduce oxygen levels low enough to kill invertebrates, including abalone. This year’s event was more extensive, affecting reefs along a stretch of over 50 miles of coastline inside and outside of coves and at all depths that have been surveyed. There is no pattern in these deaths that would suggest local oxygen depletions.

Researchers are testing abalone for the toxic compounds produced by some of the species found in this bloom. One of the species identified so far is the dinoflagellate, Gonyaulax spinifera. Rita Horner at the University of Washington and David Crane at Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response determined that this was the most abundant phytoplankton species and it releases a toxin called a Yessotoxin. But only minute amounts were detected in dead abalone. According to Dr. Raphael Kundela at the University of California Santa Cruz it is unlikely that the die-off was caused by this toxin alone. The concentrations found in the water and abalone tissue were too low. They are also well below any levels that are considered detrimental to human health. Kundela’s laboratory is researching other potential causes for the invertebrate death. These include unknown or little understood toxins and the possibility of a bacterial or viral infection stimulated by the red tide that caused the fatalities. If toxins are responsible for the death it is also not clear how they were ingested by species such as abalone and urchins that are not directly feeding on plankton by filtering it from the water. Abalone feed on larger seaweeds and kelps. Studies in other regions of the world have suggested that invertebrates can take in toxins from algae blooms because they coat the seaweeds that they feed on. As the research into the mystery die-off continues, the Department of Fish and Game has closed the recreational abalone fishery in Sonoma County for the remainder of this year’s fishing season. Reef Check teams will be surveying the region again over the next couple of months to investigate the effects of the die-off and provide data to California Department of Fish and Game and other researchers to inform decision making on abalone fishery management.

While many divers were distraught after seeing hundreds of dead abalone, one beneficial side effect of the algal blooms was an amazing light show of bioluminescence. Some of the phytoplankton emit light when disturbed and this bioluminescence causes breaking waves to glow green or blue at night. Jerry Rudy, owner of Stillwater Cove Ranch and long-time resident of the area, reported nightly blue bioluminescence (like these photos from San Diego) along the coast at an intensity that he had never seen before.

Red tides, Algal Blooms and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)
Why do dinoflagellates light up?

For more information see the following sites:
Harmful Algal Blooms: and Bioluminescence:

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Save the Reefs, Save the Oceans Gala 2011 A Big Success!

On September 16th, Reef Check held its “Save the Reefs, Save the Oceans” charity gala at the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica, California. The event was a big success, raising over $100,000 for Reef Check’s programs.

The Poseidon Award was presented to underwater filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall for their amazing films about reefs and the ocean such as Coral Reef Adventure that have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. After accepting their award, the Halls showed a never-before-seen short film featuring spectacular footage of California’s marine life called “100 Miles.” The film showed their favorite dive sites in the world, all 100 miles from their home in San Diego.

The Reef Stewardship award was presented to the artist Wyland who has communicated a conservation message to over 1 billion people using paintings and sculpture of underwater themes from whales to coral reefs. Wyland also participated in the evening’s live auction, auctioning off three live brush paintings.

Click here to view photos from the evening.

Thank you to our sponsors Body Glove, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Nova, The Reluctant Capitalist, Valhalla Motion Pirctures, and VeeV; and many thanks go out to all who attended, donated, and volunteered- your efforts helped to make this event our most successful yet!

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

The 2011 survey season has shown once again how committed RC volunteer citizen scientists are to our work. We have had full boats and large groups of divers on most surveys. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the volunteers for putting us on a path to making this the most successful survey season yet, with a goal of 83 sites to be completed by the end of November!

In August, Reef Check started monitoring sites in southern California as part of the collaborative team of research groups charged with developing the baseline assessment of the Marine Protected Areas in this region. After a delay in the regulatory process, the California Fish and Game Commission has now shifted the implementation date for these MPAs to January 1st 2012. Nevertheless, RC and other groups are already out in the water monitoring the sites that will be protected to develop an understanding of the state of the ecosystem at the beginning of its protection. RC already had many sites in the study region and several years of data. Now we have started adding new locations and adjusting monitoring to accommodate the new protected areas that will be in effect next year. In September, the MPA Monitoring Enterprise brought together all collaborators from the south coast project to kick off the three year program and to discuss ways in which resources can be shared to create synergies and make this program more than the sum of its parts. This program provides an opportunity to generate a comprehensive two year snapshot of the region’s marine and coastal ecosystems and Reef Check’s long-term data will be used to evaluate the efficacy of the new MPAs in the future.

To inform the public about these MPAs, Reef Check has partnered with the Surfrider Foundation and will hold four public meetings throughout the south coast region in November (Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego). At these meetings we will display maps and regulations of the new MPAs, we will talk about ways to get involved and discuss ways in which these MPAs will be monitored and evaluated. Please see the following link for an announcement of the workshops and to find one near you: MPA community meetings.

Further north, RC has been monitoring the sites along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts where MPAs were established in 2010. For the second year now, we are taking a two pronged approach to monitoring in this region. In addition to our community-based surveys with RC’s citizen scientists, we are also collaborating with PISCO, an academic research group based at the University of California Santa Cruz, to develop a detailed understanding of the abalone and urchin populations in the region. As part of this effort we have surveyed over 30 sites in this region. This monitoring was particularly timely this year as we have been witnessing an unprecedented die-off of invertebrates, including abalone, sea urchins and others species along this stretch of coast during the month of August. It is not yet clear what caused this very unusual event but it is likely to be the result of an intense red tide, which coincided with the invertebrate deaths (see article on abalone die-off in this newsletter).

Coincidentally our annual Sonoma Survey Extravaganza was planned for mid-September, just after the invertebrate die-off. Our volunteers were anxious to head to the area, not only because this is one of our favorite survey weekends of the year, but also to see first hand the effects of this event. We had an enthusiastic group of 18 and lofty goals to complete our 5 sites in the region. We used the charming and comfortable Stillwater Cove Ranch “dairy barn” as a home base for the weekend. The conditions were less than favorable with a large swell stirring things up and the remnants of the thick red tide reducing visibility. Nonetheless we were able to complete 1 ½ of our existing sites and were able to add two new strategically placed sites in the Point Arena area. All in all it was a fun, successful and interesting weekend. We all had a great time diving together. The volunteers returned to shore with very important data as well as qualitative reports of dead invertebrates seen along the seafloor including abalone, urchins, sunstars, and gumboot chitons. We plan to return to the area in the coming months to complete our surveys and to monitor the populations of affected species.

RCCA will be surveying for a couple more months this year, so if you are interested in joining us please visit our forum and sign up for a survey. We would love your help!

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Technical Question of the Month
Halimeda– record in 'Other' category  

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 don’t we count Halimeda? and related questions

One reason that Reef Check data are considered reliable enough to be used by scientists in major scientific investigations of reef health is because the protocols were designed specifically to be used reliably by volunteer citizen scientists. There are limitations to what we can expect citizen-scientist volunteers to be able to learn in a relatively short training period. By restricting the level of identifications to a small subset of representative indicator organisms, we know our Reef Check volunteers can be trained to e.g. differentiate between a butterflyfish and a grouper, but we would not expect them to learn all species of grouper.

In a traditional ecological monitoring program designed to be carried out by trained scientists, it might be decided to differentiate various coralline and calcareous algae. But this is beyond the scope of Reef Check monitoring. This is not to diminish their ecological role on the reef.

What are coralline and calcareous algae and how does Reef Check handle them?

In recent years, biologists have moved algae out of the Plant Kingdom and into the Protist Kingdom and divided them into many sub-groups going well beyond the traditional red, green and brown algae divisions. When you consider many aspects of the life history of algae – such as a zooxanthella growing a tail and swimming away from a host coral, (“zoox” are the microscopic algae that live in corals), this change is not surprising. The Protist Kingdom is the catch-all group for organisms that don’t fit into the other Kingdoms.

Many species of calcareous algae take up calcium from seawater and create a calcium carbonate skeleton that can be either a tightly encrusting red or pink layer on rocks such as Lithophyllum, loosely encrusting or can form various branching structures such as the ubiquitous green Halimeda. There are over a hundred species of Lithophyllum and almost 40 species of Halimeda found in all tropical waters. There is only one brown genus, Padina. Halimeda “branches” serve as food for herbivores and after death, their broken segments make up as much as 90% of sand on some beaches and they create the bulk “in fill” of many fossil reefs. Coralline red algae also provide much of the “cement” that holds a reef together even after they have died.

Coralline algae are also very important as a stimulus for coral and other invertebrate larvae to settle on the reef. However, only a small amount of coralline algae is needed and the larvae do not necessarily settle directly on the algae but often on rocks nearby so there is not much added value in recording the amount of coralline algae. Therefore, the 2004 peer review of the Reef Check protocol by a dozen Reef Check scientists concurred with the original 1996 design and peer review that it was not necessary to measure the amount of calcareous algae including encrusting coralline algae. The reviewers suggested that these algae be allocated to the following categories:

Coralline algae- record the substrate beneath
  1. Calcareous (except Halimeda) or encrusting coralline (record substrate under these e.g. Sand or Rock)
  2. Halimeda sp. (put in “Other,” OT)
  3. Turf algae (put in “Rock,” RC)

Reef Check is focused on human impacts, and Turf algae are considered the “normal” healthy reef condition due to appropriate numbers of herbivores and normal nutrient levels. So it makes sense to effectively “ignore” turf and only record these same species when their growth has exceeded 2.5 cm and they are considered Nutrient Indicator Algae under the Reef Check protocol. Since encrusting coralline algae are primarily found on rock, it also makes sense to record the underlying rock – their ecological function is simply as potential space for settlement just like rock. Halimeda can occupy large areas of sand in between reefs and even on reefs. Because of its importance, the review panel felt it was best to record Halimeda as “Other.”

Humans and especially scientists spend a great deal of time and effort trying to divide up the natural world in a sensible, digestible way. As we have seen with the recent transfer of all algae from the Plant Kingdom into the Protist Kingdom – this process can be refined as we learn more. But changing a protocol after several years of use entails costs because it is no longer possible to make direct comparisons of data. Reef Check divides up the reef world into categories that have proven useful for the goals of Reef Check – but it is not a perfect solution especially for those with a special interest in Halimeda. For such groups, every Reef Check team is welcome to subdivide categories during their local surveys and separate out e.g. Halimeda from the Other category for local analysis, and then just recombine the data when submitting to Reef Check HQ.

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Successful EcoExpedition in the Maldives
By Kate Curnow, Biosphere Expeditions

In September, Biosphere Expeditions, together with the Marine Conservation Society and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, undertook its inaugural Reef Check survey, studying some of the expansive reefs of the 1192 beautiful Maldivian islands.

Coral reef structures of the Maldives archipelago are extraordinarily diverse and rich. Such structures include submerged coral mounds, often rising 50 m from the seabed to 10 m from the surface (thilas), mounds that reach the surface (giris) and large barrier reefs, which surround these structures on the perimeter of the atolls, some of which are up to 20 km long. The islands of the Maldives are entirely made from the coral sand washed up onto the very shallowest coral platforms.

Although the 26 coral atolls that make up the Maldives comprise a rich mixture of spectacular corals and a multitude of fish and other animals, the Maldives government identified a need for further research and monitoring work as far back as 1997. Biosphere Expeditions is helping to address this need.

The expedition kicked off with a press conference to launch an educational booklet. Ibrahim Ismail, Deputy Minister of Education, officially accepted the booklet at the conference on behalf of the Maldivian government. Ismail expressed great enthusiasm towards the booklet, the expedition and the participants.

From there the first team, which consisted of both international and local volunteers, went onto the live-aboard base. It was straight into Reef Check training, swapping classroom with dive sessions, learning Reef Check's indicator fish, invertebrates and substrates.

After training was completed, the newly certified Indo-Pacific EcoDivers formed three teams to conduct surveys at three different depths. Included in these surveys were permanent Reef Check monitoring sites at Rasdhoo and Dega thila. You name it, Rasdhoo has it – HC, RKC, SC, SP, NIA (for those in the know) sharks, rays, humphead wrasse, great fish diversity and beautiful coral gardens. Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, expedition scientist and Reef Check coordinator for the Maldives since 2005 said, “Results showed little change in the condition of these reefs, both in coral health and fish populations.”

“We managed to visit 10 other sites where there was a wide variation in both coral populations and reef fish populations. Our plans for next year will be to visit the healthier of the sites visited, and visit some new sites in South Male atoll.” Solandt continued, “Furthermore, our surveys revealed two sightings of whale sharks off south Mamigili that were previously identified by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project.”

“All data from the Reef Check surveys and whale shark surveys have been sent to relevant in-country and international partners. This data will be used at international, regional and national levels to provide a ‘status report’ on the health of Maldivian reefs.”

The team gained an excellent understanding of coral reef ecosystems. Thank you to the team and the super support crew.

The Maldives expedition is one of four organized by Biosphere Expeditions. Upcoming expeditions are to Musandam, Oman, in October, Malaysia in March 2012 and Honduras in May 2012. If you are interested in joining an expedition, please visit

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Reef Check Puerto Rico To Take Off After EcoDiver Training
By Nikole Ordway, Reef Check EcoDiver Course Director

In September, Nikole Ordway, Reef Check Florida Course Director, trained 3 volunteers from Puerto Rico as EcoDivers. These new Reef Check divers will launch Reef Check surveys in Puerto Rico.

The training started with a classroom session at Force-E Dive Centers in Pompano Beach, Florida. As part of the class they practiced a dry land survey where pictures of reef fish, invertebrates and impacts are placed along a transect line. This is a great way to practice before jumping in the water where communication is a bit more challenging.

The students geared up the next day for their dives on the reef to practice their surveying skills. The two sites they looked at had lots of reef fish, making it easy to practice which fish were indicators and non-indicators. Also on this reef there were a few bleached corals, which were useful to show the difference between bleached corals and other impacts like predation on corals.

To wrap up they took their EcoDiver ID exams and all three of them passed with flying colors! If you have a team of divers wanting to start a Reef Check team in your area, contact Reef Check Headquarters and they will put you in touch with a Trainer near you!

Congratulations to Veronica, Sylmarie, and Alejandro…Reef Check Puerto Rico’s newest team!

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Reef Check Australia Update
After settling into their new headquarters in Brisbane, Reef Check Australia jumped right into several new projects. The first of many was the launch of REEFSearch, a new community engagement program, which got underway in May at Lady Elliot Island as part of Tourism Queensland’s Best Expedition in the World. With the support of active partners, Reef Check Australia continues to monitor this new pilot program and has reported great feedback.

The new Grey Nurse Shark Watch program, a project that helps volunteers actively contribute to a community-based photographic identification system, was launched in June. The collective national database from this program continues to better protect this critically endangered species.

The month of July welcomed new surveyors to Reef Check Australia as the team completed another successful volunteer training course in Townsville. Following a visit with headquarters in Los Angeles in August to discuss continued contributions to the worldwide program, members of Reef Check Australia presented data collected by volunteers at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Aberdeen, Scotland in September.

The upcoming months hold great things for Reef Check Australia! They will host a seminar at the Oceanic Dive and Ecotourism Expo in Brisbane in October in addition to kicking off the survey season with numerous surveys in both North and Southeast Queensland.

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