The health of several coral reefs around the world has improved
over the past few years, but overfishing still poses a major threat
to reefs, according to a recently released study by the Reef Check
program at UCLA.
Reef Check, a non-profit organization started in 1996 by UCLA
visiting professor Greg Hodgson, at the Institute of the
Environment at UCLA, is run by volunteer scientists who train and
lead teams of volunteers in surveys of coral reefs.
Among the many findings released in its study, Reef Check found
that marine-protected areas in developing countries showed signs of
an increased number of fish in coral reefs from previous years the
study was done.
But the study also found that the global mean of hard coral
cover was a mere 32 percent, with only 34 reefs showing more than
70 percent hard coral cover and none higher than 85 percent. The
results also indicate that coral reefs are negatively impacted by
The results were gathered by more than 5,000 volunteers who took
part in monitoring some 1,500 reefs in more than half of all coral
reef countries. In order to ensure that the data gathered could be
standardized, Hodgson developed a protocol designed specifically
All volunteers must undergo a training program designed by Reef
Check. On a reef dive, all dive teams must be led by a marine
scientist who oversees collection of the data. Hodgson also has
quality assurance checks for the data, and rejects data that
doesn’t meet Reef Check’s standards.
“By limiting the IDs to ecologically and economically
valuable species, we reduce chances of error,” Hodgson said.
“We’re asking them to identify 20 key ecological
indicators of coral reef health.”
Hodgson, who runs the program from his office in Hershey Hall,
originally started the Reef Check program to develop a better
understanding of the health of coral reefs around the world.
Coral reefs are considered the rainforests of the sea. They also
provide food for 100 million coastal people, protect coastlines and
are a source of new medicines.
“We had indications that there were problems on the
reefs,” Hodgson said. “Everywhere we looked, coral
reefs were in bad shape, so we said there was a coral reef crisis
in coral reef health.”
From the data, Hodgson concluded that the biggest problem coral
reefs face today isn’t pollution or sedimentation, as
scientists previously thought. Instead, it’s overfishing.
“Overfishing is destabilizing reefs because predators have
been fished out, and they’re down to herbivores, and the
whole system has destabilized,” he said. “(It’s)
an under-recognized problem, but if you look at a map, more reefs
are in developing countries where people depend on them for food,
not near cities where pollution is a problem.”
Reef Check has partnerships with volunteers, government agencies
and businesses in developed and developing countries all over the
Two such volunteers are Mike and Nora Ross, who work with Reef
Check through their dive shop on Cebu, an island in the
Philippines. Their dive shop offers discounted dive course and Reef
Check training to select locals to get them directly involved in
surveys and conservation efforts.
“The only way (to raise awareness) is to give local
communities the tools to go out and do it themselves,”
Hodgson said. “Our main purpose is to try and direct the
funds to help train local people to give them a feeling of
stewardship over the reefs so they’ll manage them better in
As a result, the island of Cebu, whose reefs had previously
declined as a result of dynamite and cyanide fishing, now benefits
from a thriving fish population and the tourism dollars the reefs
“You have to give people a personal link to their
environment ““ to have an economic and public health interest
it (the coral reefs),” said Lena Maun, program manager for
Reef Check and a graduate student of environmental health sciences
in the Public Health Department at UCLA. “That’s what
Reef Check really supports ““ the idea that it’s your
Maun, who has led a training dive of 10 volunteers to the U.S.
Virgin Islands, believes the program has been successful in
attracting people from all backgrounds.
“The volunteers ranged from 17-65 years old, while they
didn’t know much about their environment, they were all there
to learn more and they were all surprised by how much they could
learn from being in the water for 10 days,” Maun said.
Future plans to expand Reef Check involve setting up an
interactive Web site where dive teams can input and access data for
each reef remotely. Hodgson also has plans in the immediate future
to set up California Reef Check, noting that overfishing has led to
19 species of fish being banned in California.
For now, Hodgson will bring the Reef Check study with him to the
World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South
Africa. Among the 60,000 people in attendance will be presidents,
government ministers and other influential leaders from countries
around the world.
“Our goal is to raise public awareness and try to get the
governments to collaborate with us to implement these very simple
solutions which are incentive-based, giving them an economic
alternative to just destroying a reef,” Hodgson said.
“They ultimately will have to set up legislation and at least
partial funding to make sure everything goes through.”
On the Web: www.reefcheck.org.