Reef Check Press Release - Thursday 16 October 1997
reefchck at uxmail.ust.hk
Thu Oct 16 06:30:42 EDT 1997
Reef Check 97 Press Conference
October 16, 1997 3:00 pm
Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Reef Check '97, the first global survey of human impacts on the world's coral
reefs has been completed as part of the International Year of the Reef, and
the preliminary results are being released today. Organized by HKUST's
Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development, the survey involved
over 100 marine scientists and 750 recreational divers who surveyed 300 coral
reefs in 30 countries and territories between 15 June and 31 August 1997. The
project was badly needed, according to Global Coordinator and coral reef
biologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson, "because coral reefs are the rain forests of
the sea. They are one of the world's most valuable natural resources, a
storehouse of billions of dollars worth of genetic material for drugs and an
important factor in coastal protection. They are a tourist attraction for
7 million sport divers and a source of food for several hundred million people.
" Sadly," says Hodgson, since 1990 we have been getting reports from sport
divers of rapidly increasing damage to reefs all over the globe, but
scientific data have been lacking." The few hundred reef scientists in the
world study many different aspects of the reef, at different times and places.
Traditional coral reef science has not kept pace with the spreading effects of
humans on reefs. A new approach was needed to quickly gather comparable data
on human impacts from many reefs at the same time.
The Reef Check approach was to create a global network of regional, national
and local coordination centers, each being responsible for matching up teams
of experienced recreational divers with professional marine scientists. Each
Team Scientist was responsible for training the team divers in use of Reef
Check methods, then leading them on the actual field surveys, checking and
submitting data to headquarters in Hong Kong.
The Reef Check methods differ from those used in traditional ecological
surveys in that they were focused specifically on detecting the effects of
humans on the coral reef ecosystem. The criteria for choosing Reef Check
survey methods were as follows. The methods should:
· be simple enough that experienced divers with a minimum of a high
school education, could be fully trained in less than one day,
· allow each team to survey one reef per day,
· include a strict quality control system,
· produce results that provide scientifically valid answers to key
questions about human impacts on coral reefs.
To focus the field methods on human impacts, both worldwide and regional
"indicator species" were chosen based on: 1) their high market value, and
2) ease of identification due to distinctive shape and color e.g. the humphead
wrasse as an Indo-pacific indicator of poison fishing, and the lobster as a
worldwide indicator of shellfish harvesting pressure. In addition to the 20
high-value seafood organisms chosen, other indicators of human impacts were
included such as broken corals (anchor damage) and blooms of fleshy algae
(sewage pollution). A large sample size (800 m2) was selected -- an area
100 m2 larger than a soccer field -- to be surveyed twice, once for shellfish
and once for fish. A third survey along a 100 m line would be used to
determine the condition of the corals themselves. Teams were instructed to
survey reefs which they believed were in relatively untouOCched condition
In October 1996, the Reef Check methods were posted on an Internet listserver
for coral reef scientists run by the US NOAA and professional criticism was
invited. The methods were revised, and in January, and posted on a new website
created for Reef Check. In addition to methods, the website was also loaded
with registration forms, team lists, fund-raising information and even
downloadable photos of target organisms. Regional and national coordinators
were selected and posted, and teams identified. Many teams needed to raise
large sums to cover their travel, hotel and diving expenses. For example, the
German coordinators were successful in obtaining sponsorship for a special Red
Sea expedition that was featured in a TV documentary.
"Aside from the scientific and educational achievements, this project is a
remarkable for two reasons," says Professor Gary Heinke, IESD Director,
"first, the project was run completely by internet, and second, the project
was almost entirely volunteer. From an investment by IESD of a few thousand
dollars in management costs, the project has produced worldwide about
US$2 million worth of invaluable data. We are indebted to the hundreds of
generous sponsors and volunteers who made the surveys possible."
The preliminary results from about 230 sites are being released today because
they reveal such a clear pattern of global damage to coral reefs, particularly
due to overfishing and destructive fishing. A full report will be published
later this year. The results for lobsters, which used to be abundant on reefs
throughout the world, were dismal. None were recorded at 81% of reefs
surveyed. In the Indo-pacific region, out of 179 reefs checked only 25
lobsters were found, and 11 of these were recorded at one reef in an
Indonesian marine reserve. Large grouper are heavily fished throughout the
world, and none were reported at 40% of the study reefs, with small numbers at
most. However, more than 20 large grouper were recorded at two sites in the
remote Maldive Islands, and at three sites in the Red Sea where no poison or
dynamite fishing occurs, giving a hint of what populations used to be like in
other areas. In the Caribbean, the highly prized and previously common Nassau
grouper was found at only 4 of 51 sites, giving a total of 12 fish.
The corals themselves appeared to be in better shape globally than the fish
and shellfish. The mean percentage of living coral cover on reefs was 31%
globally, with the Caribbean recording the lowest value at 22%, possibly
reflecting recent losses due to bleaching and diseases. In the Red Sea, there
was less than half the dead coral (3%), than the other two regions. The ratio
of live to dead coral was highest in the Red Sea, suggesting that these reef
corals are the healthiest in the world.
One apparent bit of good news is that only 7 sites showed greater than 10%
cover of fleshy algae, indicating that nutrient enrichment associated with
sewage pollution was not a problem at most of these "good" sites. Sewage
pollution may be more important at reefs near urban areas which were not
common in this study.
In the Indo-pacific, the humphead wrasse and barramundi cod were once
moderately abundant on reefs, but none were reported at 85% of 179 reefs
surveyed. Of more than 25 km of Indo-pacific reef surveyed in detail, only 26
humphead wrasse were seen. At the 125 Asian and Australian reefs surveyed,
only 5 barramundi cod were recorded. These results suggest that cyanide and
other forms of fishing have severely damaged populations of these once
moderately abundant species. High-value, edible sea cucumbers used to litter
the seabed around many reefs. The three species included in Reef Check were
totally absent from 41% of Indo-pacific reefs surveyed demonstrating the
extent of over-harvesting. An average of 17 giant clams was found on the
Indo-pacific reefs. An indication of what natural populations used to be like
was provided by the 150 to 250 giant clams recorded at several protected sites
in the Red Sea and Australia.
Hong Kong provides an example of coral reefs subjected to almost every form of
disturbance: overfishing, poison and dynamite fishing, pollution and
sedimentation. Out of 11 collectible or edible indicator species only two
(Trochus shells and butterflyfish) were recorded. Several of these
once-abundant species are now effectively extinct in Hong Kong.
In addition to making measurements, each team subjectively assessed the
intensity of human impacts at their sites. Based on this, 45% of the reefs
were rated as being subjected to low or no human impacts. In contrast, the low
numbers of fish and shellfish recorded in the surveys indicate that almost all
sites have been affected by heavy fishing of one or more indicator species.
One reason for this is that many fishing activities occur at night, when sport
divers are not present. In some areas such as the east coast of Borneo, the
reefs had not been previously surveyed, and some scientists previously assumed
that they would still be untouched. But according to the Sarawak Reef Check
team, "99% of the reefs have been damaged by blast fishing."
According to Dr. Hodgson these results are an urgent reminder that "ocean
resources are not limitless." The low numbers of edible and collectible
indicator species is strong evidence that "coral reefs have been plundered on
a global basis." The good news is that results from marine parks with proper
management demonstrate the effectiveness of conservation to allow populations
of indicator species to recover. High numbers of indicator species were
reported from marine protected areas in several countries.
The goal is sustainable use of marine resources. If unsustainable practices
are allowed to continue, populations of coral reef organisms will dwindle,
many seafood items will become even more expensive than the US$100/kilo now
charged, and more fishermen will be forced out of work. International
eco-politics may intrude. Some nations have already begun to impose
environmental regulations on imports through e.g. "green" packaging rules.
Countries whose seafood and fishing industries support cyanide fishing could
find all of their seafood subject to import bans by trading blocs opposed to
unsustainable fishing methods.
The world has reached the stage where it is technologically possible to
monitor and to manage marine resources. Reef Check works well as a rapid
assessment tool, and indicates where additional, more detailed scientific
studies are needed. Repeated annual surveys will be useful to determine if
management practices are working, and populations of indicator species are
recovering. An annual "State of the World's Reefs" report is needed, based on
both Reef Check and more detailed studies.
The solutions to the problems affecting coral reefs are well-known and include
tighter control of fishing through traditional as well as newer methods
e.g. international satellite monitoring of fishing boat movements. Reef Check
results clearly show the necessity to increase the number and size of marine
protected areas and to improve their management so that they can serve as
"seedbeds" for the surrounding areas. In addition, more research and testing
is needed on aquaculture of high-value reef species to meet the growing demand
for seafood and other products that coral reefs will never be able to supply.
And just as education and legislation were used to reduce the ivory trade, a
similar effort is needed to reduce demand for cyanide-caught live fish,
particularly large animals that have a high value for dive tourism and that
contribute greatly to reproduction. Public education is needed in S.E. Asia to
teach people why it is not "cool" to eat reef fish larger than a dinner plate.
Funding agencies, political leaders and natural resource managers need to
focus on implementing these solutions now so that we will all have plenty of
reef fish and lobster to eat in the future.
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