Author Archives: Cherie Wagner

Behind-the-scenes on Project REGENERATE

Photo © Project REGENERATE

In recent years, the IUCN has increased its engagement in the Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, with the development of the IUCN Maldives Marine Projects program, which aims to support the Government in addressing the environmental priorities and challenges that the Maldives faces. Project REGENERATE (Reefs Generate Environmental and Economic Resilience in Atoll  Ecosystems), a major project under this program, supports the sustainable management of coastal resources in the Maldives, particularly coral reefs, in order to build economic, social, and environmental resilience to the adverse effects of climate change. One major research activity of the project is a two-leg scientific expedition to investigate coral reef biodiversity and resilience and provide baseline ecological data for the Maldives.

The first leg of the expedition, in collaboration with the University of Queensland and the Catlin Seaview Survey, employed high tech cameras to collect data from eight atolls. The second leg of the research cruise was comprised of 17 researchers, representing  universities, research and environmental institutions from around the world, and focused on North Ari (Alifu Alifu) Atoll in the Maldives. The team documented fish abundance and species structure, benthic composition, coral population demographics, coral bleaching and disease, mobile invertebrate species, and foramnifera health. A key strategy of the project was to build local capacity by training citizen scientists in national monitoring protocols. Citizen scientists from Alifu Alifu Atoll, the capital Male and as far afield as Colombo, Sri Lanka, joined the research team, received training, and helped to collect data for their home reef. The data collected will help to assess the resilience of the coral reef ecosystem. It will also help to assess how population density affects reef health. Such assessments address important data gaps in the region and are critical in a country highly vulnerable to climate change, and also dependent on its world-renowned coral reefs and the resources that they provide. This information, combined with data from future monitoring assessments, will inform policy and management decisions in the region.

The Reef Resilience Team got a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse into this expedition from two crew members: Zach Caldwell, The Nature Conservancy’s Dive Safety Officer, and Amir Schmidt, IUCN Maldives Marine Projects Field Officer.

Reef Resilience (RR): Can you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Zach Caldwell (ZC): There was a predicted sea temperature rise this year in the waters around the Maldives. Because we know that corals are more susceptible to bleaching and disease when thermally stressed, this created a timely opportunity to address pressing research questions on the resilience of corals in the Maldives. There seems to be quite a void in quantitative information on coral reefs in the Maldives, so the approach was to organize a comprehensive team to ensure that all necessary information was collected to answer the questions being asked.

RR: What was your role in the expedition?

Photo © Project REGENERATE

ZC: I was a member of the fish team. I worked directly with three other researchers to count and size reef fishes found along our transect line. I also worked directly with Scripps Institution of Oceanography to collect benthic data. We set up 10m x 10m plots on the seafloor and took a sequence of photos of these plots. The photos were later stitched together to make a detailed map of the sea floor. This provides us with a large permanent record of the community structure in that area at that time.  We complimented these data with fish surveys to compare fish abundance with bottom composition.

I conduct similar coral reef and fish surveys in Hawai‘i to provide our community partners with information on the health of their reefs to help inform community-based management. The Nature Conservancy Hawai‘i is currently working with 19 community partners across the State. As a research team, it’s important that we stay up-to-date on the latest monitoring protocols and also contribute to collaborative research projects like Project REGENERATE.

Amir Schmidt (AS): I had three roles to play during the expedition. My first duty was to make sure that the research team was sampling the right places at the right times. With dozens of divers and three dives per day, we had to stick to a tight time schedule! My second role was to oversee the citizen science component of the expedition. This included four local citizen scientists – two people from an environmental NGO, an assessor for Green Fins Maldives, and a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency Maldives – who helped to collect data on fish and benthic life forms, such as corals, sponges, and algae during the whole expedition and eleven community members and resort staff who joined the cruise for a day, receiving on board and in water training on monitoring protocols focused on benthic communities.

RR: How did the idea  to include local community members and scientists in the expedition come about, i.e. what was your motivation for this aspect of the project?


Photo © Project REGENERATE

AS: Our goal for including community members in the expedition was to identify who locally is interested in coral reef monitoring, in order to build a network of citizen scientists to monitor our marine resources and later use this information to create a management plan.

Usually we go to the islands and conduct monitoring workshops there. This time, we took advantage of the opportunity to host the workshops on the research vessel. In addition to the training, the community members got to see what daily life on a research expedition looks like. The Maldivian island communities are small and because transportation in between them is limited, interactions of this kind are extremely rare. I think it was interesting for both the community members and researchers, and helped them to see the bigger picture.

Log on to the Network Forum to read the rest of the interview.

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Pacific managers participate in Strategic Communications Learning Exchange

Communications LX group photo

From September 9-11, 2014, fourteen practitioners from Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, and Yap participated in a Strategic Communications Learning Exchange in Maui, Hawaii. The workshop was designed to provide marine conservation professionals with training in strategic communications, including working with the media and facilitation skills with a focus on the practical application of these skills to a current project. In addition, 42 managers attended a half-day workshop on key components of strategic communications and select communications tools– including social marketing– that can be practically applied to meet their conservation needs.

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Fisheries Webinar #2: Sustaining Fisheries Through Building Partnerships with Fishers and Restaurants

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June 10, 2014

Speakers discuss two approaches in the Caribbean to sustain fisheries and marine resources including a new sustainable seafood initiative underway in collaboration with local restaurants in the US Virgin Islands and working with fishers in Puerto Rico to increase local engagement in more sustainable management and conservation planning.

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Fisheries Webinar #1: Sustaining Fisheries Through Collaborative Approaches

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May 28, 2014

This is the first in our series of three webinars to share information on the development of new tools and management strategies for coral reef fisheries. Carmen Revenga discusses work on sustaining fisheries by partnering with local fishers, communities, and industry to implement innovative management approaches that result in viable local fisheries and marine conservation. Steven Victor gives an overview of how data-poor stock assessment methods are being used in collaboration with fishers in Palau to promote sustainable fisheries management practices.

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Interview with Dr. Graham Edgar

Five Characteristics of Effective MPAs

Dr. Graham Edgar and his 24 co-authors recently stirred up the marine conservation world with their article, “Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas five key features”. In this article, they review 87 MPAs at 964 sites (in 40 countries) around the world using data generated by the authors and trained recreational divers.

News Edgar et al map

Their overall conclusion is that global conservation targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity that are solely based on the area of MPAs do not optimize protection of biodiversity. They found that effective MPAs (measured by biodiversity, large fish biomass, and shark biomass) needed to have 4 or 5 of the following characteristics: no-take, well enforced, >10 years old, >100 km2 in size, and be isolated by deep water or sand. Unfortunately, only 9 of the 87 MPAs had 4 or 5 of those characteristics, most of the remainder of MPAs were ecologically indistinguishable from non MPAs. The authors hope that reserves that are serious about biodiversity outcomes will adopt the 5 characteristics (when possible) and quickly see a rapid increase in the potential of a site to have regionally high biomass and species numbers. You can find the paper here, and see a conversation with some of the authors.

We asked Dr. Edgar some questions and here is what he said:

What can a manager of a smaller, newer, or not isolated MPA take from this paper, as they might not be able to influence those factors?

Concentrate on good enforcement, ideally through good will from the local community, and also through improved policing if required. Newer MPAs will age, so with good enforcement and some no-take zones, biodiversity goals are achievable in most locations. This is not assured, however, so ecological monitoring is needed to understand what is working and what can be improved, rather than assuming all is fine under the sea.

In regards to working with trained, skilled, recreational divers to collect data for this study: what would you recommend to coral reef managers who work with (or want to work with) recreational divers for their monitoring programs? What aspects of this part of the data collection led to success?
We found group participation helped during surveys, which were more enjoyable when motivated and like-minded divers could interact with each other. Also, one-on-one training and support to Reef Life Survey (RLS) volunteer divers is fundamental to consistent data gathering. Our divers can see that their efforts contribute directly to improved marine conservation management. Virtually all of the active divers from the start of the RLS program six years ago remain enthusiastic and continue to participate, a very positive statistic.

What surprised you the most in doing this study?
In terms of biology: the near absence of sharks and other large predatory fishes sighted by divers other than in MPAs, even off isolated unpopulated islands. By comparison with reports from cruising yachts and divers in the same areas only a decade or two ago, it seems clear that population numbers of big fishes and lobsters have declined precipitously in recent years.

In terms of governance: the fact that the developing world and the Southern Hemisphere are leading efforts to establish MPA networks. European and continental Asian countries have very few effective MPAs, despite huge ecological stresses and marine biodiversity assets that are remarkable and unique, but deteriorating.

What part of this research has made you feel the most optimistic for the future of MPAs?
The recent establishment of large no-take MPAs in isolated regions is a very positive step. Of course this is only one component of a global MPA system – we certainly need effective MPAs of a variety of sizes to encompass all ecosystem types worldwide – but it is great to see some refuges established that will assist the survival of large wide-ranging species, at least in the tropics.

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