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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?

Training

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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U.S. Virgin Islands – Disturbance Response


The U.S. Virgin Islands BleachWatch Program

Location
U.S. Virgin Islands

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

The Challenge
In 2005, coral reefs throughout the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean were severely impacted by a mass coral bleaching event triggered by prolonged exposure to above normal water temperatures. The bleaching observed in 2005 caused some direct mortality and was also followed by an increased incidence of disease outbreaks. Multiple studies reported this pathway of bleaching followed by increased incidence of disease, with corals varying in degree of mortality resulting from both stresses. This event caused resource managers to realize a formal plan was needed to better respond to coral bleaching events and communicate with stakeholders.

Actions Taken
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) BleachWatch Program was developed to assess and monitor coral bleaching primarily from warm water events and document the distribution, severity and impacts of bleaching to reefs and reef communities. The program was developed by adopting and modifying strategies from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Florida’s successful BleachWatch programs.

BleachWatch BCD Tag

BleachWatch BCD Tag. Photo © TNC

Program Development
To guide the development of bleaching response efforts a steering committee was formed. The committee was composed of reef experts from local and federal government resource agencies, non-profit organizations, and academia. The Bleachwatch Program is one of five main components of the US Virgin Islands Reef Resilience Plan (VIRRP), a larger planning effort to conserve coral reefs in the USVI and promote coral reef resilience.

The VI Reef Resilience Plan and steering committee were necessary to generate and document agreed upon protocols between key stakeholders for the Bleachwatch Program. The Plan provides details on the purpose, response activities and triggers, monitoring protocols and community volunteer training. See further details of the plan below:

Assessment and Monitoring
NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch (CRW) Program, provides current reef environmental conditions to identify areas at risk for coral bleaching, and is used to prepare and respond to mass bleaching events. The following CRW products are monitored by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the USVI to provide a early warning system: Alert Areas, Hot Spots (current thermal stress), Degree Heating Week (DHW), Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly (SSTA). These products are available free to researchers and stakeholders to understand and better manage coral bleaching in the region.

USVI Bleachwatch response activities are directly based on advisories and alert levels received from NOAA along with local temperature data. When a Bleachwatch alert is received from CRW by TNC, volunteers are mobilized. They are the first eyes in the water, reporting basic observations such as presence or absence of bleaching. Volunteers are asked to collect data for any areas they visit and also asked to survey specific sites of interest such as coral nursery outplantings and sites assessed with high resilience. If a more severe event takes place, TNC alerts the steering committee and the scientific community. During this time, volunteers might continue to assist with monitoring, but data is more specific and collected at a finer scale to estimate of the percentage of coral reef affected.

Alerts are issued by NOAA only when a station experiences a change in thermal stress level. Table 1 presents a summary of the advisories/alert levels from NOAA monitored by TNC, definitions of the each levels and the response of the USVI Bleachwatch program to each advisory.

BleachWatch Table 1

Community Volunteer Training
Individual volunteers from the public are a main component of the USVI Bleachwatch Program and contribute to the assessment of coral bleaching. BleachWatch assessment methods are taught through in-person training sessions (Since 2013, 4 volunteer trainings have been conducted in St. Croix and St. Thomas). Training sessions are 1 hour in length and focus on the identification of corals reef, fishes, and other creatures. Differences between bleaching, disease and mortality are discussed. Each session also includes training on survey methods, materials, methodology and guidelines for submitting data. A USVI Bleachwatch website was developed to communicate with volunteers and the public. Volunteers have the option of submitting reports through an online datasheet, by email or mail.

USVI Bleachwatch Volunteer Survey Methodology
Conduct a 15 minute roving snorkel or dive pausing each 3 minutes to document a “survey station”. At each survey station:

  • Take a photo or record data for a 1 m2 surface area of the reef
  • Estimate percent coral coverage and percent bleaching of coral
  • Report observations of the absence of bleaching
  • Record other findings such as number and types of herbivorous fishes, number and types of invertebrates and types of diseases
  • Record your findings on the VIRRP BleachWatch Reef Assessment Data Sheet

Materials Needed

  • Diving or snorkeling equipment
  • Underwater clipboard or slate
  • Underwater datasheet and pencils
  • Coral Watch Bleaching Cards
  • Underwater digital camera or video camera – if available (optional)

How Successful Has it Been?
Since the launch of the USVI BleachWatch Program over 35 individuals on St. Croix and St. Thomas have been trained to identify and quantify the severity of bleaching. In 2014 the program protocols were tested for the first time. A Bleachwatch alert was sent out and volunteers were successfully mobilized to survey sites for bleaching. Over 30 reports were received and, fortunately, no bleaching was observed. The secondary response components of the program have been fully tested, as there has not been significant bleaching of corals in the territory since 2005.

The USVI Bleachwatch Program has resulted in increased support and capacity for resource managers to identify and respond to bleaching events. Volunteers are functioning as an early warning system for bleaching events. Managers and the scientific community have a clear plan for assessment and response to bleaching events to inform the proactive management of coral reefs during severe bleaching events.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
The most important lesson learned is to be mindful that not all volunteers will collect data uniformly. In some instances volunteers are comfortable only sharing whether or not bleaching was observed, which is also important information. It is important to be mindful of volunteers’ time and welcome any level of information that they are willing to share.

Here are some additional recommendations to consider when developing a program:

  • Have a point person in place to keep program organized and lead communication with steering committee members and volunteers. During the development of the program it is critical to determine who can serve as point of contact for the program, this requires staff time for coordination. Consider where point of contact responsibilities can be integrated into existing or complementary efforts for example coral reef monitoring efforts.
  • Clearly defining benefits, incentives, and creating a feedback loop to the volunteers is important.
  • Be flexible and realistic about of the quality of data you hope to receive and the format in which you will receive it from the volunteers – some will fill out the entire form, some will just send an email.
  • Provide other alternatives and options for reporting such as a mapping tool to make it easier for people to report the event.
  • Group volunteer time effort – consider expanding the topics included in a training to include other issues affecting coral reef health that volunteers are interested in reporting for example; invasive species, grounding damages.

Funding Summary
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

Partners
The Nature Conservancy
The University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies

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Biogeography And Change Among Regional Coral Communities Across The Western Indian Ocean

Following the major 1998 coral bleaching event between 2004 and 2011, 291 coral sites from 11 Western Indian Ocean (WIO) countries were surveyed to evaluate regional biogeographic patterns of coral communities along latitudinal gradients and in relation to biogeography and fisheries management. Coral reef abundance, biodiversity, and susceptibility to bleaching were assessed during that period to develop an extensive database on coral reef communities and researchers aimed to evaluate possible impacts such as fishing and fishing closures on reef patterns and status. Patterns show that coral communities are influenced by large-scale interactions between biogeographic factors and temperature abnormalities but not so much by fisheries management. All coral reefs in the WIO are experiencing climate change and coral bleaching since the early 1980s, but at variable rates, timing and scale depending on the geography. The region was characterized by a complexity of a large number of significant interactions among variables tested. The northern Mozambique Channel demonstrated the strongest signs of resilience to climate disturbances.

Author: McClanahan, T.R., M. Atewberhan, E.S. Darling, N.A.J. Graham, and N.A. Muthiga
Year: 2014
View Full Article

PLoS ONE 9(4): e93385. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093385

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Community Change and Evidence For Variable Warm-Water Temperature Adaptation Of Corals In Northern Male Atoll, Maldives

This study is a descriptive analysis of coral reef communities in North Male, Maldives seven years after the major 1998 coral bleaching event with the goal of evaluating ongoing changes and ability for adaptation. The study looked at coral community composition, recruitment community, evidence for recovery and responses to corals to a subsequent thermal anomaly in 2005. Eleven shallow reef areas consisting of hard calcium carbonate were assessed using benthic field measurements and bleaching surveys. Maldivian coral recovery showed considerable spatial and taxonomic variability, with dominant taxa characterized by stress tolerance and several previously common taxa now still quite rare. Compared to other Indian Ocean islands, the Maldivian coral response was considerably more variable and complicated. The authors conclude that natural selective processes are in progress with responses showing potential for adaptation.

Author: McClanahan, T.R. and N.A. Muthiga
Year: 2014
View Abstract
Email for the full article: resilience@tnc.org

Marine Pollution Bulletin 80(1-2): 107-113

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New and improved Network Forum

The Reef Resilience Network has launched a new and improved online discussion forum!

Now part of the Reef Resilience website, this interactive online community is a place where coral reef managers and practitioners from around the world can connect and share with others to better manage marine resources.

If you work to protect, manage, or promote coral reefs please join the conversation: www.reefresilience.org/network

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New Reef Resilience Online Course Launched

The new online course Advanced Studies in Coral Reef Resilience is designed to provide coral reef managers and practitioners in-depth guidance on managing for resilience. This free course incorporates new science, case studies, and management practices described in the Reef Resilience Toolkit.

The course includes six modules that discuss local and global stressors affecting coral reefs, guidance for identifying coral reef resilience indicators, design principles for resilient MPA networks, methods for implementing resilience assessments, and important communication tools for managers. Course participants can choose to complete any or all lessons within course modules. Read more.

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Contrasting Patterns of Coral Bleaching Susceptibility in 2010 Suggest an Adaptive Response to Thermal Stress

Guest et al. (2012) examine the bleaching and mortality responses of corals at sites in Southeast Asia with different thermal histories during a large-scale bleaching event in 2010 to explore whether corals have the capacity to adapt to elevated sea temperatures. They also assess whether reefs in more thermally variable environments bleach less severely during heat stress events. They found increases in thermal tolerance on reefs that previously experienced major bleaching with the most susceptible species exhibiting the greatest increases in thermal tolerance. They also demonstrated that corals generally bleached less severely at locations where temperature variability has been greater and warming rates lower over the last 60 years. These results are important because they suggest that locations that are more resistant to bleaching can be identified from analyzing their thermal histories, and such sites could be considered priorities for protection in marine protected area (MPAs). These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the capacity for adaptation and acclimatization in corals has been underestimated which is good news for coral reefs.

Author: Guest, J.R., A.H. Baird, J.A. Maynard, E. Muttaqin, A.J. Edwards, S.J. Campbell, K. Yewdall, Y.A. Affendi, and L.M. Chou
Year: 2012
View Full Article

PLoS ONE 7(3): e33353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

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Malaysia – Communication

 

Managing Communication to Mitigate Potential Damage of Coral Reef Bleaching

Location
Tioman Island, Malaysia

The Challenge
Tioman Island, part of the Tioman archipelago, is located about 55 km off the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula in the South China Sea. The island is approximately 136 km2, with 14.5 km2 of reefs located primarily off the west coast. The archipelago includes four small islands which are ten to a few hundred meters in length, and are surrounded by reefs with 200-300 species of coral in the most diverse areas. Historically, fishing was the mainstay of the communities on Tioman, but more recently dive tourism has grown and now caters to 200,000 tourists each year, the majority of whom are divers or snorkelers. There are six villages scattered around the island which is home to a population of over 3,000 people. A no-take marine protected area (MPA), established in 1994, surrounds Tioman Island and extends for two nautical miles from the low water mark. Visitors to the island pay a conservation charge of 5 Malaysian Ringgit (in 2014, approximately US $1.53) which accrues to a Trust Fund.

Bleached coral Malaysia

Bleached coral. © Reef Check Malaysia

In March 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerted the region to the threat of an imminent coral bleaching event. Observations in May 2010 by Reef Check Malaysia, a local nongovernmental organizaton, confirmed significant bleaching. Through surveys, Reef Check found that 90% of the corals in Tioman were bleached. The worst of the bleaching came in June and lasted through August. Water temperatures surrounding Tioman Island reached 3-4°C above normal. Reef Check observed that the bleaching affected other islands off the east coast of Malaysia and affected the deepest reefs in the region – as deep as 20 m.

Actions Taken

Reef Check Dive Operators

Reef Check Malaysia conducts annual surveys. © Reef Check Malaysia

Institutional Response
Once NOAA alerted the region about bleaching, the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia, the national management authority for natural resources, established a monitoring program. In May 2010, the bleaching event came to the public’s attention when a dive operator from mainland Malaysia returned from a dive trip off Tioman Island and relayed the information to a friend who worked at a local newspaper. With very little scientific or empirical data, the bleaching event was reported in the local news and asserted that the coral reefs around Tioman were all dying due to bleaching. Dive site closures were suggested as one possible management option.

Reef Check Malaysia took the initiative to use reef resilience concepts to identify which reef sites would be most suitable for protection, with minimal disruption to tourism businesses, in the event site closures were deemed necessary. Reef Check approached dive operators on Tioman and two adjacent islands – Perhentian and Redang. Through discussions, it was determined which sites to close that would have a minimal impact on dive business. Reef Check aimed to close four critical sites on each island for protection. However, before the consultation process was completed, in June 2010, the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia announced area closure plans because of the severity of the bleaching. Due to a lack of clear communication, subsequent news reports (both local and international) suggested that entire islands were being closed to diving, not just selected reef sites. Because of the poor communication, most dive shop operators did not support the government-mandated closures and did not consider the closures when taking tourists to the reefs.

Reef Check Community Consultations

Reef Check Malaysia consultations. © Reef Check Malaysia

Bleaching Response Plan
In response to the lack of an organized action plan regarding the 2010 bleaching event, Reef Check began writing a bleaching response plan for Malaysia in 2011. The plan was adopted and published by the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia in 2012. The four major components of the plan are:

  1. Early warning system
  2. Ground-truthing survey
  3. Public awareness and communication exercise
  4. Resilience building action plan

The plan established a Bleaching Response Committee and clearly highlights steps to follow during bleaching events. For example, on receipt of a “bleaching watch” announcement from NOAA, the Committee will automatically issue pre-prepared emails requesting dive operators to conduct weekly Bleaching Watch surveys. In the event the alert level is increased to a “bleaching warning” the Committee will automatically issue invitations to specialists to conduct ground truthing surveys, and if the alert level reaches “bleaching alert level 1” the Committee will automatically issue pre-prepared site closure notices.

The plan includes pre-written press releases and FAQs for use at different stages of a bleaching event, and a database of relevant contacts, including media and dive and resort operators. The plan includes consultation with relevant stakeholders to clearly communicate the bleaching response plan (i.e., site closures).

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Clarity of Communication: Reef Check Malaysia used a communication response to mitigate the potential damage from a bleaching event. Management can only be effective if stakeholders at all levels know what is going on and where it is happening. Creating a communication plan will ensure everyone will be up-to-date and informed, to prevent misinformation and miscommunication.
  • Consultation: It is important to communicate with businesses that will be impacted by a disturbance. It is also important to educate and consult the community. Even if community members are not directly affected by a disturbance, they can help to mitigate damage.
  • Increasing Local Resilience: The most common cause of coral bleaching is regional increases in water temperature, a worldwide threat associated with global climate change. Although the cause of the disturbance is not local, the focus must be on local management of threats because this builds resilience. The global nature of this threat means that management of these events becomes just as important as preventing them.

Funding Summary
Reef Check Malaysia relies on corporate sponsorship for most of its funding, as well as some grant funding:

  • Khazanah Nasional Berhad
  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Lead Organizations
Reef Check Malaysia

Resources
Reef Check Malaysia Annual Survey Report 2010 (pdf)

Reef Check Malaysia Annual Survey Report 2011 (pdf)

Bleaching Watch Survey Reporting Form (pdf)

Written by: Julian Hyde, Reef Check Malaysia

This case study was adapted from: Cullman, G. (ed.) 2014. Resilience Sourcebook: Case studies of social-ecological resilience in island systems. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

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Chronic Nutrient Enrichment Increases Prevalence and Severity of Coral Disease and Bleaching

After exposing test plots in the Florida Keys, USA to increased nutrients (at levels equivalent to nutrient input from onshore sources), researchers found that increased nutrient levels led to increased prevalence and severity of coral diseases and coral bleaching. However, one year after nutrient enrichment stopped, there were no differences in bleaching or disease, indicating that coastal nutrients are increasing prevalence of bleaching and disease. Local scale nutrient input may worsen the effects of global stressors, so limiting nutrient input may be an important management tool for reducing threats to corals. This study is the first to show that nutrients can cause an increase of prevalence of disease or bleaching in the field. 

Author:
Vega Thurber, R.L., D.E. Burkepile, C. Fuchs, A.A. Shantz, R. McMinds, and J.R. Zaneveld
Year: 2013
View Abstract
Email for the full article: resilience@tnc.org

Global Change Biology 20(2): 544–554. doi:10.1111/gcb.12450

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