Reef Check California: Empowering People to Save our Reefs and Oceans
By Gayle Hudson
At the May meeting, Aqua Tutus members and guests learned about Reef Check and the valuable contributions volunteer divers are making by helping local scientists gather species data.
Dan Abbott, the Central Coast Regional Manager for Reef Check, was our presenter and has been involved with Reef Check California as a volunteer and part-time instructor since 2005; he started working for Reef Check full-time in September 2014. In the two years Dan has managed the Central Coast region for Reef Check, he has expanded the number of survey sites and training sessions. Additionally, he spearheaded new efforts to survey the Big Sur coast by organizing live aboard trips out of Morro Bay.
Dan was introduced by Aqua Tutus member David Chervin, a Reef Check volunteer diver who did more survey work this year for the organization than any other volunteer in the region.
Dan began with an explanation of how California’s rocky reefs support giant kelp forests, which are one of the most productive biospheres in the world, providing habitat, nurseries, feeding grounds, oxygen and host hundreds of species. The reefs support an annual ocean economy of approximately $43 billion, the largest in the United States.
Dan explained the ecosystem structure, food chain disruptions and keystone species critical to the health of a reef. The history of the California coast experienced exploitation where, by the 1800s, hunted species such as sea otters were thought to be extinct. In 1911, they were declared a protected species despite no sightings being made. Finally, by 1938, sea otters were rediscovered at Bixby Creek while the bridge there was being built. The otters returned to Monterey’s Cannery Row in 1964, an area relatively barren of animals. Other exploited/unsustainable harvests included abalone, by the early-mid 1900s and many species of fish by the mid-late 1900s.
Despite the depletion of species, and unlike land, Marine forests can rebound quickly and resist change better. There are also stalled recoveries, where sea otters that have not been hunted for 100 years increase in numbers by 5% per year. Abalone is slow but steady, and while some fish populations are still healthy, others are severely depleted. Agricultural runoff, global warming, harmful algae blooms, sea star wasting disease, plastic marine debris, invasive sargassum and other factors all contribute to decimate the kelp forests and coral reefs.
In 1996, Reef Check was founded to answer the question: “What is the health of coral reefs globally?”
To answer this question, Reef Check started training volunteer citizen scientists worldwide to count selected indicator species, build local support for conservation and develop economically sound and ecologically sustainable solutions.
In 2006, Reef Check California (RCCA) was founded to foster the sustainable management of the state’s kelp forests. To gather the data scientists need on an ongoing basis, RCCA trained roughly 1,500 divers who have completed over 750 surveys. In 2016, RCCA trained 302 divers who completed 87 surveys at 77 sites statewide.
To be eligible for Reef Check training, a diver must have the following qualifications: proof of dive certification; minimum of 30 logged lifetime dives; minimum of 15 logged dives in California or other temperate region with water temp below 68° F; minimum of six dives within the last year; minimum age of 16 on the first day of class.
Students are issued a Reef Check California instruction manual, indicator species flash cards; a databoard with compass, pencil with waterproof paper and transect tape. In the classroom, students learn scientific diving methods, data collection techniques, species identification, basic marine ecology and dive safety. Students learn to identify 36 species of fish, 31 species of invertebrates, and nine species of algae. The second day of class is spent in the pool practicing the collection techniques.
During the second weekend, six checkout dives are made aboard the Silver Prince. On a dive, volunteers carry a databoard, datasheets on underwater paper, a pencil, compass, flashlight, transect tape and calipers. The first day diving is just getting a feel for the survey process and during day two everything falls into place and Dan says that’s when “…divers get it.” He said retention rate is almost 100% from year to year.
For 2017, California Reef Check has scheduled 35 dives on the central coast from March through October. 22 of the dives are shore dives and 13 are boat dives; several dives are overnight trips (both shore and boat) and the locations range from Mendocino to San Luis Obispo.
Divers interested in Reef Check California can find more information at their website.
We thank Dan Abbott for his informative presentation of Reef Check California, and David Chervin for connecting us with Dan to make this presentation possible.