[Coral-List] Coral-List, Vol 61, Issue 28 -- Reliable coral reef data & Reef Check

Gregor Hodgson gregorh at reefcheck.org
Tue Sep 24 16:25:12 EDT 2013

Gosh ‹ I wish Reef Check were a "juggernaut" ‹ maybe we would have a better
dataset without so many temporal and spatial holes that would help everyone
better understand what is really happening out there. We certainly need more
help with that. But thanks! We are very proud that the Reef Check protocol
and training process through "immersion learning" whether with fishermen or
government officials -- are accepted as a community-based monitoring program
in many countries. But does that mean that RC is is ONLY useful for
community-based monitoring? Read onŠ.

Reef Check (RC) is the name of our organization and also the name of just
one of our many monitoring protocols. Our organization is involved in dozens
of different types of activities each year around the world ‹ all with the
aim of marine conservation. One of our core programs is to use training with
the RC monitoring protocol as part of a process of community organizing.
Luckily the drafter of the original protocol is still alive (me) so can
illuminate some of the misunderstandings that come up from time to time ‹ as
some may not be aware of the published origins, intent, technical protocol,
training manual, QA protocol, and possible applications of the Reef Check
coral reef monitoring protocol. All of the answers to these questions have
been published in peer-reviewed journals and technical reports such as the
RC Instruction Manual over the years and are in the publications section of
the ReefCheck.org website
http://reefcheck.org/about_RC_Reef/Publications.php.  I thank John B & John
M for addressing some of these already from their experienced perspectives
and I list some pubs below.

1 -- Origins of Reef Check ‹ research or community education?
Reef Check is a monitoring protocol drafted at the behest of geologist Bob
Ginsburg following the 1993 Colloquium in Miami where a couple hundred coral
reef scientists realized we couldn¹t answer the question Bob originally
posed, "What is the health of the world's reefs?" It could not be answered
because no one had set up a globally standard monitoring program that people
could buy into. I drafted the original protocol so that it would be carried
out by scientists only ‹ and using the newly available internet, it was
publicly and privately peer-reviewed by most of the top coral reef
scientists in the world involved in monitoring ‹ who gave very helpful
advice. But by then a group of us led by Bob had come up with the idea to
implement the first International Year of the Reef. Sue Wells suggested that
we redesign the RC protocol so that it could be accessible to non-scientists
with some training.  Therefore, following the lead of soft-bottom ecologists
who got tired of counting and identifying worms, I applied the concept of an
"indicator species" to the protocol. The specific criteria for why we choose
each indicator organism or non-living indicator are listed in several
publications and the training manual but include things like ease of
identification, information content, global or regional distribution. This
was peer-reviewed again by the top folks doing monitoring for their bread
and butter in the world and again adjusted. The first global survey of coral
reefs became one of the hundreds of activities of IYOR, which eventually
occurred in 1997. So 350 reefs in 31 countries were monitored for free and
the published results and PR were the first scientific evidence on a global
scale that there was a global coral reef crisis due largely to overfishing ‹
a claim that was met with disbelief in some quarters in 1997 but
subsequently confirmed by many researchers. So the protocol was designed to
both answer a RESEARCH question regarding reef health and to EDUCATE
non-scientists about coral reefs. But is RC scientific? Rigorous? Read onŠ.
                                          Hodgson, G. (2001). Reef Check:
The First Step in Community-Based Management. Bulletin of Marine Science
69(2): 861-868.    
Hodgson, G. (1999). A Global Assessment of Human Effects on Coral Reefs.
Marine Pollution Bulletin. 38/5: 345-355.

Hodgson, G. and Liebeler J. (2002). The Global Coral Reef Crisis: Trends and

2 -- What is a monitoring protocol? A monitoring protocol is simply a tool
that can be applied to answer scientific questions  and just as a hammer is
good for pounding nails but could also be helpful for breaking open a walnut
but not very good at opening a beer bottle, each protocol has its advantages
and disadvantages as John pointed out. There are many variables in any
protocol that will affect its usefulness such as e.g. transect or quadrat,
length of transect, size of quadrat, and then the application of the method
‹ how many transects and what is their dispersion with respect to the area
to be studied? Sampling design, sample size, statistical power and bias
issues apply to every sampling protocol not just Reef Check. The point is
that the number of replicates, guidance regarding how to locate sample sites
and other variables can be adjusted to suit the question and additional
parameters such as certain species of interest can also be added. If RC
doesn¹t seem to fit well with a specific question then choose another method
or better yet add a layer.

3 -- Is the Reef Check protocol "scientific"  and "rigorous.?" Any method
that can reliably and repeatedly answer a question correctly is "scientific
and rigorous," regardless of whether data collectors are 4th graders or
PhDs. What confuses people seems to be the difference between "detail" and
"rigor." For example, because the RC protocol uses both family level and
species level identifications ‹ some are tempted to say that the method is
not rigorous on this basis alone ‹ which is wrong ‹ it is simply targeting
family level. As long as we are asking questions about family level changes
then the protocol is scientific and rigorous at that level if it is applied
properly with sufficient replication. But it is less detailed obviously. To
be rigorous, the method also needs to be designed to match the level of
training of the data collector that matches the level of detail asked in the
question of interest. Whether this level of detail is useful or not depends
on the question. Don¹t forget that until a few years ago the entire US
weather reporting system was dependent on a network of 1000s of volunteers
who manned rain gauges in their back yard. Was this rigorous "enough" to
answer the question about rainfall levels?
Hodgson, G. (1998). What is the Purpose of Monitoring Coral Reefs in Hawaii?
Proceedings of the Hawaii Coral Reef Monitoring Workshop - A tool for
management. June 9-11, 1998. East-West Center, Honolulu, HI, USA.

For a perspective on scientific rigor see:

4 -- Who actually collects Reef Check data? Unfortunately, we have failed at
the original goal of targeting recreational scuba divers for the tropical
program.  We underestimated how firmly vacationers cling to the desire to
drink Mai Tai's and get massages on the beach rather than spend a week in
the classroom learning marine bio and taking difficult tests and counting
sea urchins for Reef Check. The reality is that most of our tropical data is
collected by professional marine biologists ‹ government or NGO staff, or
marine biologists in training. The last time we actually checked it was
something like 60% have a PhD or Masters in marine bio. This is a higher
level than some other long-term monitoring programs by research institutions
and individual academic researchers who often hire young students supervised
by experienced ones. But since some of our data is collected by trained and
certified volunteers, there are several publications comparing data quality
between them and trained scientists. See citations within those papers for
many others.

Gillett G, Pondella D, Freiwald J, Schiff K, Caselle J, Shuman C, Weisberg
S. (2011) Comparing volunteer and professionally collected monitoring data
from the rocky subtidal reefs of Southern California, USA. Environmental
Monitoring and Assessment: 0167-6369: DOI: 10.1007/s10661-011-2185-5

Uychiaoco, A.J., H.O. Arceo, S.J. Green, M.T. De la Cruz, P.A. Gaite and
P.M. Aliño.(2005). Monitoring and evaluation of reef protected areas by
local fishers in the Philippines:tightening the adaptive management cycle.
Biodiversity and Conservation 14: 2775-2794.
5 --  Are the data produced by the RC protocol useful for an MPA or
fisheries manager or a country level manager?  Countries like Jamaica, the
Bahamas, HK China, Brazil, Cuba  where they have many extremely well-trained
PhD level marine biologists would not choose Reef Check to be part of their
official monitoring programs unless it was providing useful information. MPA
managers would not continue to use RC monitoring year after year. The
advantage of RC is that it is ALSO useful to engage the public in reef
monitoring so that they can see for themselves what is going on and the data
gain credibility and community support ‹ so the benefits are on multiple
levels ‹ education, good data for science and promotion of conservation
programs.  In fact it is often the scientists who enjoy the opportunity to
engage with the public.
6 -- Is the RC protocol all we need to track reef health or answer my pet
fisheries question? Of course not! The RC protocol is useful for gaining the
quickest answer with the minimum cost about a suite of indicators which
together represent one definition of reef health. The protocol and
indicators have been peer-reviewed now four times (again in 1998 and again
in 2004) by numerous coral reef monitoring specialists. Some changes were
made each time. We always recommend that where funding is available, then RC
can be part of a larger, multi-level (e.g. GCRMN) and more detailed
monitoring program  ‹ and we encourage local teams to add organisms of local
interest/importance as long as it does not impede the ultimate training
goal. In fact, Reef Check (the organization) has developed, published  and
implemented many different protocols for different applications with
different levels of detail. For example the RC California protocol for rocky
reef ecosystems and MACTRAQ for fish stock assessment are species based and
include sizing of many fish.

7 -- $$ funding vs detail? California is one of the wealthiest places on the
planet. And yet ‹ when it came time for the State to fund monitoring of the
rocky-reef ecosystems of the newly established statewide MPA network ‹  Reef
Check California program was the only monitoring program that survived on a
statewide basis. Sadly, excellent high end programs were let go. The point
is that whether a wealthy country or a poor one ‹ none want to pay for
'boring' regular reef monitoring, therefore the relatively low cost of Reef
Check is an advantage. The choice in developing countries is easier ‹
because just paying for gas and a boat is typically a major challenge.
Scientists tend to be VERY self-centered and want their favorite organisms
to be monitored daily. Monitoring programs are often designed by teams of
scientists during well-funded 5-year projects ‹ and these
"everything-including-the-kitchen-sink" monitoring programs typically
collapse when the 5-year funding runs out because the governments don¹t want
or cannot afford to fund them. So the question often is: would you like to
have Reef Check level of data regarding your reefs or none at all? If you
are going to have RC level of detail, why not use a protocol that can be
compared regionally and globally? Why not help contribute to track national,
regional and global reef health at the same time? Why not help us to perform
a much-needed public service as global warming eats away at our favorite

Specific responses to coral-list comments are addressed below:

1 -- "we are given the hard sell from Reef Check," ---   I wish we could
afford a PR person to do a better job of selling. People come to us to help
them solve reef monitoring/management problems.
2 -- "particularly in its effort to legitimise its scientific credential
claims" --  The currency of science is peer-reviewed publications  -- ours
speak for themselves. The use of the RC protocol in most coral reef
countries as a first tier monitoring program suggests the protocol is simply
seen as useful for producing useful data and community organizing to support
marine conservation.

3 -- "with what is and will always be, a simple community awareness raising
tool."  -- the authors of the papers using RC data obviously disagree as
would the MPA/fisheries managers who rely on RC data as a first cut to
figure out what is happening on their reefs. In addition, those who know
about the number of MPAs and other direct conservation activities that RC
monitoring has stimulated around the world including assisting most recently
with getting 95% of Brunei's reefs tossed into no-take MPAs might disagree.
The Haitian university students who recently discovered a coral reef with
60% coral cover after 800 km of 5% reefs might disagree as that area will
now be added to the list of prospective high priority MPAs for the Minister
of Environment to consider.

4 -- "My greatest concern is that the Reef Check juggernaut, principally
because of its well organised format, gets presented to many developing
countries as the basic tool for all reef related issues that a country may
be concerned about. This results in the collection of data that are entirely
useless for the real local issues that they may be faced with."

-- Thank you, we include in our publications and training materials that RC
is a good "first cut" of reef health but will not be a panacea and will need
to be combined with other protocols/indicators depending on the questions of
interest. That said, RC data are almost ALWAYS useful for reef fisheries
questions because the suite of indicators were selected because they are
excellent proxies for fishing impacts on both herbivores and predators
especially when combined with Nutrient Indicator Algae and living coral.
Show me a Pacific Island reef where there is a high abundance of grouper and
sweetlips  (RC indicators) but jacks and surgeonfish (not RC indicators) are
fished out. And yes, after being fished out over the last 15 years,
bumpheads and humpheads are extremely rare now and rarely turn up in a
survey -- that¹s exactly the point.

For those of us diving 40 years ago on small pacific islands this was not
the caseŠ..irrespective of ranges ‹ these animals were common and often in
high numbers. In places like Palau where sizeable MPAs have been in place
for a few years, we are starting to see these fish come back to the natural
abundance levels where they were pre- 1970s. And exactly ‹ given the low
funding available on a small tropical island ‹  should we expect them to
invest in a special fish protocol that requires expensive PhDs to do the
work at high cost mulitple times every year forever? If they are already
doing RC, but have personnel with taxonomic skills (fishermen or fisheries
officers), why not just add some additional species to their RC surveys?
Fishermen can usually better identify fish species than PhDs and they often
recognize other important seasonal changes. Add more replicates to increase
sample sizes and areas surveyed. Use a layered approach in time and space to
achieve the best overall monitoring program. Bob Johannes' paper puts this
in perspective.
The case for data-less marine resource management: examples from tropical
nearshore finfisheries. Trends in ecology & evolution. 13(6) 243 ­ 246.
5 -- The RC protocol is just one of hundreds of protocols ‹ we have never
claimed it was the best ‹ and we cannot control what others do with it or
say about it. If in doubt refer to the original papers and Instruction
Manual to clarify these issues. Its a pretty good hammer, but don¹t try to
use it to open beer bottles.

Gregor Hodgson, PhD
Executive Director
Reef Check Foundation
PO Box 1057 (mail)
17575 Pacific Coast Highway (overnight)
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272 USA
T: +1 310-230-2371 or 2360
Gregorh at reefcheck.org
Skype: gregorh001

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