The Transect Line – September 2011 Newsletter Archive
Reef Check Haiti Featured in the New York Times Technical Question of the Month: Uniform Point Contact Method
Reef Check Dominican Republic Celebrates 5 Years; “Her Deepness” Visits La Caleta Reef Checks with OceansWatch in Vanuatu
Isla Natividad Update: Inaugural Dive Boat Expedition and Annual Recertification Reef Check Branches Out to New Zealand
Reef Check California Update Double Your Donation To Reef Check

Reef Check Haiti Featured in the New York Times

Reef Check Haiti was featured earlier this month in the New York Times!

Click here to read the story:

The accompanying video can be watched here:

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Reef Check Dominican Republic Celebrates 5 Years; “Her Deepness” Visits La Caleta
By Reef Check Executive Director, Dr. Gregor Hodgson

On the other end of Hispaniola Island from Haiti, Reef Check Dominican Republic (RCDR) has just celebrated its 5th anniversary with the amazing early success of La Caleta Marine Protected Area. As documented in a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book on its first five years, RCDR has shown how to turn a former “paper park” into a well-functioning Marine Protected Area producing both ecological and economic solutions. Both Reef Check's Dr. Gregor Hodgson and “Her Deepness” Dr. Sylvia Earle were able to dive there recently. “I was very excited to see the condition of the corals,” stated Hodgson, “plenty of fish and very little algae. This shows that with proper management even badly overfished reefs can come back to life quickly.”

In 2004, Reef Check International developed its first project in the DR, which sought to create and implement an educational program known as the EcoDiver. This citizen science program was offered to kids and adults in order to increase awareness of direct and indirect uses of reef resources. As this program grew in popularity, it became clear that there was a need for a local non-profit organization that would work toward continuous, long-term marine conservation, education, and restoration projects for coral reefs at a national level. Reef Check Dominican Republic (RCDR) became a legal entity on December 28, 2005 under the leadership of Dr. Rubén Torres, a coral reef ecologist.

The creation of RCDR established the local presence of a formal institution of trained staff working around the clock on coral reef conservation. In addition to a core program of citizen science, Reef Check has also focused on putting conservation and restoration of local coral reef systems into action. La Caleta, near the airport in Santo Domingo, is one of several reef areas where RCDR has been involved in monitoring and conservation activities. Working with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the result has been significant improvements in coral reef health in one year.

With this shared management model, RCDR developed a long-term project consisting of integrating community members into the park management, as well as creating a new and better alternative to destructive fishing for fishermen through eco-tourism (snorkel and kayak), thus providing the basis for a more sustainable outcome for both the park and the fishermen. The fishermen are now the biggest supporters of La Caleta. Given the required level of conservation that is currently being implemented, the preservation of many species that represent the Dominican Republic’s rich marine flora and fauna are now observable in a place where they were once absent. Large fish such as Grouper and lobsters are coming back. Divers and others interested in marine conservation now have the opportunity to witness a true success story as the reef restores itself.

For more information on RCDR and to find out how you can get involved, visit

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Isla Natividad Update: Inaugural Dive Boat Expedition and Annual Recertification
By Reef Check California's Southern California Manager, Colleen Wisniewski

During late July 2011, I returned to Isla Natividad on the west coast of Baja California to lead the annual recertification of members of the Fishing Cooperative Buzos y Pescadores. I was joined by fellow staff member Mary Luna. Instead of our usual mode of transportation to the island, this time we had a unique experience in being part of the inaugural live-aboard dive trip to the island.

I first got the chance to explore this island last summer when I worked with the Coop divers on their annual recertification. The diving was phenomenal – what I imagine Southern California may have looked like many years ago – lush kelp forests teeming with large fish and invertebrates. After my visit last year, I'd hoped to share the beauty of the island with other divers. Well, this was my opportunity. Mary and I met 13 passengers in San Diego and traveled on a charter bus to Ensenada where we boarded the Nautilus Explorer, which is a very comfortable long-range boat. We were joined by Johnny and Toshi, two divers from the Coop, who would act as dive guides once we arrived at the island. The Nautilus visit was part of a project developed by the Coop, Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) and Reef Check. The goal is to develop small-scale sustainable tourism on the island to partially compensate for the loss of fishing area when two marine reserves were established in 2006.

En route to the island, we did a full day of diving at the San Benito Islands, just north of Isla Natividad. In the evening, we did a few presentations about our work with the Coop and a preview slideshow of some of the critters they might encounter on their dives. Finally, we arrived at Natividad and spent three days exploring the amazing dive sites, both inside and outside of their marine reserves. Just as I remembered, the rocky reefs there are stunning and on our very first dive we saw a mola mola, or ocean sunfish, in the crystal clear water of the kelp forest; giant sea bass and egg-yolk jellyfish were also seen. What a great welcome to Isla Natividad! We were also able to go on land and and checked out the lab where they grow abalone for outplanting, saw their desalination plant and beautiful lighthouse, and were treated to a meal of fresh local fish before returning to the boat. I believe the passengers thoroughly enjoyed their experience both above and below the waters of the island. This expedition was a pilot project and we hope there will be future expeditions to the island.

Once the boat departed, Mary and I remained at Natividad to work with eight members of the Coop and two COBI staff to complete their annual recertification of underwater survey methodology in preparation for their annual surveys. The divers worked hard, as usual, during the classroom and field training and did an excellent job getting it all finished quickly and efficiently. After their refresher with us, the divers spent several days surveying fish, invertebrates, seaweed and substrate in their two no-take reserves and four control (fished) sites. 2011 marks the 6th year of data collection around the island, which is quite an accomplishment. The results of these surveys allow the Coop to track reef health in the reserves and sustainably manage fisheries outside.

We thank the Cooperative Buzos y Pescadores, the Natividad Community, Comunidad y Biodiversidad, Mike Lever and the crew and passengers of the Nautilus Explorer for making this a memorable field season.

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

Reef Check California has already surveyed 30 of its monitoring sites this year. So far, we have been very fortunate with the ocean conditions, as waters have been calm and visibility has been good for most of the year. This has allowed us to complete surveys at many sites that we were struggling to finish by this time last year. In August we started our second year of baseline monitoring of the MPAs in the north-central California study region between Bodega and Point Arena in Mendocino County. This is the final year of the two year monitoring program and we will collaborate with our partners to survey the 39 sites done last year for a second time. In addition to our sites where we do full Reef Check California surveys, we are also characterizing the population size, structure, and density of red abalone and sea urchins at an additional 34 sites.

In central California, we have surveyed most of our sites in Monterey Bay and are now focusing on the amazing sites in Carmel Bay and Pt. Lobos. Recently, there have been many exciting sightings of seasonal visitors to the Monterey Bay. Several basking sharks have been spending time around the Monterey Peninsula, and leatherback sea turtles and giant sunfish have also been seen frequently. These species come into the bay to feed on the abundant food that is available this time of year. The turtles and sunfish feed on the jellies that have come in with the oceanic water in recent weeks, while the basking sharks follow the plankton that is abundant in the upwelling zones along the coast. In addition to these large species, sardines and squid have moved into the bay and with them their predators, including salmon and white seabass. The bay is buzzing with life right now! If you want to come out and survey either in central California or in southern California, please check our online forum at: . We hope to see you soon!

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Technical Question of the Month
Many of the invertebrates that cover the primary substrate of the reef, such as the strawberry anemones, barnacles and algae in this picture are difficult to count therefore RCCA uses the UPC method to survey them  

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 California – Why do we use a uniform point contact method to characterize the reef habitat?

When Reef Check California performs its surveys, we characterize the physical substrate and structure of the reef as well as the community of reef attached organisms. We do this in addition to counting and sizing the mobile organisms on the reef. Since many of the organisms attached to the reef are encrusting and colonial, it would be impossible to distinguish individuals and count the number of organisms along the transect line. Therefore, we use a different survey method called Uniform Point Contact (UPC) transects. Instead of counting, we record the substrate and attached organisms under a point every meter along the transect and estimate the reef relief within a half square meter rectangular box at each point. This generates thirty data points for substrate, relief, and attached organism type respectively, along each transect. This approach lets us quantify the substrate and relief of the reef and generate a ‘photo style’ representation of the attached organisms along the transects. Since these UPC transects are performed in the same locations as the fish and invertebrate transects, this information can be used to interpret the distribution and abundance of the mobile organisms counted on the fish and invertebrate transects.

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Reef Checks with OceansWatch in Vanuatu
By Grace Phillips, Vanuatu Project Leader, OceansWatch

Vanuatu is a wondrous land of dense tropical forests, hidden villages, golden beaches and ancient kastom traditions. Below the surface of its Coral Sea waters it is just as magical. Untouched reefs abound with fish and turtles, sea snakes slither amongst the hard coral, and dolphins cruise the crystal clear depths. A marine environment this pristine, belonging to the ni-Van population of a mere 250,000, is certainly worth protecting. This is what draws OceansWatch to Vanuatu each year.

OceansWatch is a New Zealand based non-profit organisation, which draws scientists, divers, and sailors together to interact with coastal communities in developing nations throughout the world to promote marine awareness, conservation and sustainable uses of their marine resources. The use of a 34ft yacht named ‘Magic Roundabout’ allows the OceansWatch team to visit islands and villages further afield and often out of range of government projects and other NGOs.

One aspect of OceansWatch’s work is to conduct Reef Check surveys in each community. On arrival in Vanuatu at the beginning of June, the OceansWatch Vanuatu team began Reef Check training with Katie Thomson, the Reef Check Vanuatu coordinator. Katie has been working in Vanuatu for 5 years, conducting training workshops in villages nation-wide to empower the communities to monitor their own reefs. The reefs are controlled by family groups or villages as an extension of land-ownership, rather than by the government. When carrying out Reef Check surveys at the community reefs, OceansWatch encourages the participation of trained locals. We’ve found that a great way to involve the non-trained locals is to get them to drop the plumb line on the substrate survey or to spot the invertebrates for us – it’s amazing how proficient they are!

Almost half way through the season, the OceansWatch Vanuatu team has already visited 4 communities in the southern islands of Vanuatu and conducted 10 Reef Check surveys. The main finding that stands out is the good health of the coral. We have observed little to no bleaching or disease on the reefs and low anthropogenic impacts such as anchor damage or dynamite fishing. Aside from the reefs around the islands of Nguna and Pele, the southern reefs appear free from devastating Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, which are causing some concern in areas further north in Vanuatu. The reef substrate mostly consists of hard coral (Acropora and Pocillopora, and some large specimens of slow growing species) and a lot of rock, with a low percentage of soft coral. However, we have encouragingly found extremely little nutrient indicator algae, possibly thanks to the low levels of coastal development and the absence of flushing toilets and agricultural run-off. This, coupled with low levels of sediment and coral rubble, should lend a hand in successful coral larval settlement in the years to come.

Interestingly, invertebrates have been fairly absent on the surveys. The most common invertebrates we’ve found have been sea-cucumbers and pencil urchins. Reef Check Vanuatu surveys also include local indicator species such as Trochus and Green snail (large molluscs which are harvested for food). The presence of Trochus has been sporadic throughout the islands but not one Green snail has been spotted, which is cause for some concern.

An absence of large fish has been noticed on a lot of the reefs but small parrotfish are plentiful throughout, as are butterfly fish. Surgeonfish, an algal grazer and another Reef Check Vanuatu indicator species, are also high in numbers which may contribute to the low levels of algae. Despite the absence of large reef fish, several white tip reef sharks and larger specimens such as a big Lemon shark and a Leopard shark have been observed, which is great to see as they have been fished out of most reefs globally.

Vanuatu is at the forefront of marine conservation. Every village we have visited so far has set aside at least one, but often several, marine tabu areas (areas of restricted fishing, harvesting and anchoring to varying degrees of protection). Most of the tabu areas have been set up out of the communities’ own initiative and although they may not be internationally recognised conservation areas, they still do the same job! The Vanuatu government has no idea how much of the country’s reefs are protected in this way, and this is one task that OceansWatch is helping them with this year – to map any tabu areas we come across. The sheer number of them is so wonderful to see! And by conducting Reef Check surveys inside and outside of tabu areas, we are hoping to build up a picture of how effective they are… so far the reefs are some of the most pristine I have ever seen!

OceansWatch has a few more months left in Vanuatu this season, and we are looking forward to carrying out more Reef Check surveys on the beautiful reefs surrounding the islands of this amazing country.

More more information, please visit

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Reef Check Branches Out to New Zealand
By Jesus Ruiz Lopez, Reef Check New Zealand

New Zealand has a coastline of over 15,000 km, and its marine shore and seascape extends from subtropical waters in the north to cold subantarctic waters in the south. This nutrient rich mix of waters supports a high diversity of marine life. Rocky reefs and kelp beds support many species which are recreationally and commercially fished, such as snapper, blue cod, lobster, kina and paua.

New Zealand is an isolated country in the south-west of the Pacific which means there is a high proportion of marine species only found here.

Changes to the marine environment are caused by (over) fishing, land-based sources of pollution, sedimentation and introduction of marine pests. Only 1% of New Zealand’s marine environment has been surveyed.

A dedicated group of volunteers in Nelson is setting up Reef Check New Zealand as a non-profit environmental organisation with the aim to protect and help restore the marine environment. EcoDiver Trainer Jesus Ruiz Lopez is training the first 8 volunteers, with the aid of marine biologist Meagan Carter, tailoring the tropical Reef Check protocol to fit the unique New Zealand marine ecosystem.

If you would like to get involved with this new program, please contact Volunteer opportunities are available for both divers (PADI Advanced Diver or equivalent) and non-divers throughout the year.

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Matching Campaign Doubles Your Donation to Reef Check
We are thrilled to announce the Campbell Boat Match Campaign, a wonderful opportunity for you to double your donation to Reef Check. The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment has pledged to match every donation to Reef Check’s California Program through the end of 2011 directed towards the cost of our reef monitoring trips. Boat charters are one of the highest and fastest growing costs of the California Program. Your gift of $150 usually buys two hours of boat time, but with the Campbell Foundation’s match, you are actually supporting four hours of valuable boat time – enough for an entire reef survey!

With California’s new statewide network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in place, it is vitally important to monitor reef ecosystems as they recover, and natural resource managers rely on Reef Check data to make better management decisions. Reef Check California now surveys 80 reefs along the entire 1000-mile long coast of California, and while we are able to keep our administrative costs at less than 15%, we spend over 45% of our California operational costs on boat charters. We need your help to maintain our presence in the water.

Our goal is to raise all our 2011 boat costs through this fundraising campaign, so please give generously. We aim to raise $40,000 in donations, which will be matched 1:1 by the Campbell Foundation. This is a wonderful opportunity to help improve the health of California’s reefs and ocean.

We are a non-profit organization, so every single dollar donated is tax-deductible. Please help us by donating now online or by sending a check to Reef Check, P.O. Box 1057, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272-1057 USA.

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Reef Check P.O. Box 1057 Pacific Palisades, CA 90272-1057 USA