Reef Check Press Release - Thursday 16 October 1997

HODGSON GREGOR reefchck at
Thu Oct 16 06:30:42 EDT 1997

Reef Check 97 Press Conference 
Background Material
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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