Belize – Community Engagement

Community Researcher Program Builds Reef Stewardship in Belize

Port Honduras Marine Reserve, Belize

Fish in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve in Belize. © TIDE

Fish in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve in Belize. © TIDE

The Challenge
The Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) is a national protected marine reserve in the Toledo district of Belize. It covers 40,470 hectares (100,000 acres) of mangrove and coastal ecosystems, and encompasses over one hundred small, mangrove-­fringed cayes, benthic habitats comprising soft-bottom seagrass beds and fringing reefs.

A local nongovernmental organization, the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) employs rangers that carry out management and enforcement throughout the reserve, and until recently, had also been primarily responsible for monitoring in the reserve. However, the large area and limited staff resources made monitoring and effective enforcement difficult. The other main challenge is that of building support for the MPA and fisheries regulations among stakeholders. Until the Port Honduras Marine Reserve was founded in 2000 and TIDE and the Fisheries Department began to enforce regulations, local fishers were unaccustomed to being regulated. Fish stocks were, and still are, in a relatively healthy state, making it difficult to convince fishers that regulation is needed. In particular, the ban of gill nets in the reserve is perceived as having had a negative economic impact, increasing conflicts and hindering efforts to build stewardship.

Port Honduras Marine Reserve Ranger Station. © TIDE

Port Honduras Marine Reserve Ranger Station. © TIDE

Actions Taken
With the logistical challenge of monitoring fisheries, endangered species, ecosystem health and water quality over 100,000 acres of water in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, TIDE began the Community Researcher Program. Through this program, TIDE has trained 15 young people from PHMR’s buffer communities (five per year for three years) to SCUBA dive and conduct environmental monitoring, then employed the best performers to conduct monitoring in PHMR on an on-going basis.

Trainees in the Community Researchers Program receive SCUBA training. © TIDE

Trainees in the Community Researchers Program receive SCUBA training. © TIDE

The monitoring activities performed by community researchers include:

  • Coral reef health using the MBRS method (specific to the Mesoamerican Reef) and AGGRA method (for comparison with the rest of the Caribbean)
  • Seagrass health using the SeagrassNet method
  • Mangrove ecosystem productivity using the MBRS method
  • Turtle nest monitoring
  • Conch and lobster surveys
  • Water quality monitoring, including nutrient and sediment analysis
  • Fish stock assessment (catch and market surveys)
  • Lionfish monitoring and culling
  • Collection of fish otoliths and observation of gut contents and gonad development.

As well as the monitoring techniques, community researchers are trained in:

  • SCUBA diving (PADI Open Water Diver)
  • GPS use and basic GIS analysis
  • Emergency first response
  • Basic environmental science, including basic coral reef ecology, land-sea interconnectivity and the impact of human activities.

How successful has it been?
The program has been very successful at addressing the challenges of monitoring and building support for the reserve. Zoe Walker, an independent assessor, concluded that “the Community Researcher Programme provides a good model for other organizations, with integration of community researchers into the science programme activities, and capacity-building targeted to ensure reliable data collection.” To date, the main successes of the program are:

TIDE community researchers training

Community Researchers in training. © TIDE

Building Stewardship: The initiative has excelled at building passion for conservation in the young participants. Community researcher Willie Caal was studying to be a primary school teacher when he joined. Within six months, he had switched to natural resource management and is excited about a career in conservation. “Being a community researcher can actually change your life. It changed me because I got more chance[s] to be in the ocean. I’m now more interested in conservation, in protecting the environment.” Community researcher Alana Barillas put it this way, “it makes you appreciate the environment more. It makes you see what’s really happening. [For example,] you see what is affecting the sea grass and the benefits that sea grass brings in terms of the nursery and controlling sedimentation. Knowing that makes you want to cherish it.” Those community researchers who are also fishers say they have improved their practices. “I have more commitment to practicing the right things that will benefit the environment,” said one.

The impacts don’t end with the community researchers – they are rippling through the wider community. Fishers now have more confidence in the use of scientific research as a basis for reserve management. One recently commented that he believes TIDE’s research results because his own daughter is involved in the data collection. “I come from a fishing family,” says Willie Caal. “My family loves to see me working in this kind of field. They ask me about the abundance of conch and lobster in the sea. I tell them they are more abundant in the conservation zones and they are reproducing there.” The community researchers are ambassadors for conservation and sustainable management. They communicate with resource-users about human impacts on ecosystems in a way they understand, creating deeper understanding and building stewardship. Fishers are starting to buy in to the idea that resource management is something that should be done by the community, for the community.

Building capacity for conservation: The program has increased TIDE’s research and monitoring capacity greatly by enabling the survey of more sites more often and to a higher standard than before. It is also providing trained personnel for other organizations. For example, our community researchers have done monitoring work for the Healthy Reefs Initiative and collaborated on projects with Blue Ventures and the University of Belize.

Employment opportunities outside of fishing: TIDE is employing up to ten community researchers on a part-time basis. Furthermore, the training is enabling participants to find good salaried positions, for instance in the Belize Coast Guard and at a local dive resort. Over the coming years, we expect more to find jobs with the University of Belize, Fisheries Department and NGOs around the country.

Personal development: The program has created an exciting environment in TIDE’s research and monitoring department. Community researchers are exposed to exciting projects and interact with international volunteers. They like working alongside likeminded people passionate about the environment. With the initial group of community researchers, it was very difficult to get them to do anything without paying them. Now, most of them volunteer for extra duties because they care about the work and the research results, they want to gain experience and they enjoy the work.

Next steps

A Level 2 TIDE Community Researcher course is being planned, in which participants will be trained in ecology, basic data analysis, laboratory techniques and communications skills and receive PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. Next steps also include having the community researchers talk at schools about life as a community researcher and what it means to protect the environment. They will also receive media training and act as spokespeople to help build reef stewardship across Belize.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
Make an effort to recruit the right people: Having the right people is key and using a widely publicized competitive application process including an application form and interview will maximize your chances of finding good quality candidates. TIDE recruits people who not only represent the community but also have a commitment to the environment and the right aptitudes. To be eligible, candidates must:

  • Come from the local community
  • Be aged 18+
  • Have graduated from high school
  • Be able to swim
  • Be contactable by phone and email
  • Demonstrate an interest in the environment and willingness to learn

Put due effort into training: As with selecting the right participants, this is key. Get the training right and everything that follows will be easier. ‘Continual reinforcement’ is used throughout the training. Provide handouts to avoid note-taking and enable trainees to listen. Most importantly, make the trainees learn by doing. The best way to learn anything is to do it and practical, hands-on training works best for most people. Allow the trainees plenty of time to practice techniques under supervision and be prepared to throw out your initial data as practice runs. Even classroom lessons can be interactive – don’t just state facts, get them to discover concepts for themselves by asking them the right questions.

Save yourself time and resources by using teaching resources from organizations: Find out what monitoring methods other organizations in your area are using. Standardize methods with them and see what they can offer in terms of training – they may be able to provide methods training or at least materials. For example, TIDE’s coral health monitoring methods and protocol for monitoring mangrove productivity were taken straight from the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Survey manual. The Healthy Reefs Initiative has training materials for the AGGRA method and ECOMAR provides training and materials for turtle nest monitoring.

Quality control mechanisms are necessary: To ensure a high quality of data collection and management, quality control checks must be performed at multiple stages. Trainees must pass theoretical and practical exams to qualify as TIDE community researchers and all research and monitoring activities are carried out under the supervision of an experienced marine biologist. The supervisor performs duplicate measurements alongside the community researcher on the first occasion that they use each technique and at random intervals thereafter. Any discrepancies between the results are discussed and problems resolved. All data entry is double-checked and there is an accountability trail for all data (the names of the people who collected, input and checked the data are recorded). Only community researchers who demonstrate competence and reliability continue to be employed.

Ensure high safety standards: Clearly an accident could undo a lot of your good work and so health and safety must be maintained. TIDE’s community researchers are insured for diving (the cost is shared) and they receive training in emergency first response and practice implementing an emergency action plan. The research vessel is equipped with an O2 kit and first aid kit and TIDE ensures that a rescue diver is present on all monitoring trips involving diving and insists that community researchers submit their dive logs before they can get paid.

Lead Organizations
Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE)

Australian Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration (AusAID)

TIDE Community Researcher Program
Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Health Assessment
Healthy Reefs Initiative

This case study was adapted from: Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) 2015. Reef stewardship in Belize: TIDE community researcher program. A case study developed for the Australian Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration.

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U.S. Virgin Islands – MPA Management

How do we use our Marine Space? Mapping Human Uses of the East End Marine Park

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

The Challenge
The St. Croix East End Marine Park (STXEEMP) is the U.S. Virgin Islands’ first and largest marine protected area. Its waters are cherished for a variety of commercial and recreational uses by fishers, recreational boaters, charters, hotels, and marinas. The Park also contains extensive mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, sea turtles, beaches, and fish species, which provide invaluable ecosystem benefits. While the extent and health of the biological resources are well understood, human use and social dimensions of the Park are not well researched or documented.

A central objective of marine spatial planning (MSP) is the identification and reduction of conflicts among human uses, and between human uses and the environment. In order to achieve this objective, it is necessary to have accurate and thorough spatial data representing both important and sensitive benthic habitats as well as the location, temporal distribution, and intensity of human activities. Unlike datasets related to physical and biological information, coastal human use information is less common in geographic information systems (GIS). However, collecting and putting this information into GIS allows for it to be visualized and analyzed for the purpose of MSP and management. This project filled those human activity data gaps through a coastal use mapping project.

Participants at the coastal mapping project for the St. Croix East End Marine Park represented a number of organizations including national and local government agencies, fishers, hoteliers, charter companies, and recreational boaters. © TNC

Participants at the coastal mapping project for the St. Croix East End Marine Park represented a number of organizations including national and local government agencies, fishers, hoteliers, charter companies, and recreational boaters. © TNC

With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (NOAA CRCP), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural resources (USVI DPNR) convened partners and stakeholders to conduct the STXEEMP Coastal Use Mapping Project. Designed to collect information on how a community is using a coastal or marine area, a representative group of stakeholders were invited to provide input on how they use the waters and coastal areas of the Park. In order to ensure accurate representation from users of the STXEEMP, project partners assembled a list of every human activity within the STXEEMP. Key stakeholders from each activity were invited to workshops to represent their knowledge of that activity. This data will help resource managers understand both the range and intensity of key activities.

Workshops were held with stakeholders on St. Croix on April 16 and 17, 2015, to map key uses in the coastal environment, with a particular focus in the St. Croix East End Marine Park. Representatives from different marine sectors (recreation, watersports, marina, charter boating, SCUBA diving, and fishing industries) as well as NGOs and territorial and federal governmental partners met to provide first-hand information on the spatial and temporal distribution of human use activities in nearshore areas of USVI.

Stakeholder Mapping WS

Participant mapping coastal activities using E-Beam™ technology. @ TNC

This information was captured using the method of “Participatory GIS Mapping.” Participatory mapping provides participants a map on which to indicate the location of their activities, while moderators generate representative spatial data files in real time. E-Beam™ technology, an interactive tool that allows users to draw electronically on a map, was used to aid the participatory mapping method. During the workshops, maps of the STXEEMP were projected on the wall in front of the group. Representative stakeholders of each activity (i.e. snorkeling) walked to the front of the room and electronically mapped the location while the group provided input.

This work represents an ongoing effort by TNC, USVI DPNR, NOAA CRCP, and members of the Caribbean Regional Ocean Partnership (CROP) to update human use data throughout the USVI in support of resource managers and regional MSP.

Heat map of cumulative activities shows the most intensely used areas of the STXEEMP.  Red and orange areas indicate heavily used areas of the Park. © Lynnette Roth

Heat map of cumulative activities shows the most intensely used areas of the STXEEMP. Red and orange areas indicate heavily used areas of the Park. © Lynnette Roth

How Successful has it been?
The following human activities and subsequent mapping layers were created during the STXEEMP Human Use Mapping Workshop in April 2015:

  • Boat Ramps and Slips
  • Marinas
  • Moorings
  • Recreational and Commercial Boating
  • Motorized and Non-motorized Personal Watercraft
  • Dive and Snorkeling Sites
  • Marine Restoration
  • Camping Beach Areas
  • Fish and Conch Fishing Area
  • Surfing

Data collected during the mapping workshops has been made available to workshop participants on the CROP Data Portal to the general public and resource managers as maps, GIS mapping layers, and analytical products reflecting the variety and extent of ocean uses. The summary report will be available electronically at Where possible, layers were combined to create a regional file for the entire territory of the USVI.

Map of motorized and non-motorized personal watercraft activity (i.e. kayaking) in the STXEEMP.  © Lynnette Roth

Map of motorized and non-motorized personal watercraft activity (i.e. kayaking) in the STXEEMP. © Lynnette Roth

These data are available to local and regional managers for the purposes of marine spatial planning, management, conflict reduction amongst user groups, and resource protection.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
In order to conduct a participatory mapping process, several key factors come into play including:

  • Participatory mapping depends on human resources and knowledgeable stakeholders must attend workshops and share their valuable information on human activities. Effort should be put towards recruitment of these stakeholders.
  • Technical resources including personnel that can manipulate GIS spatial files is critical.
  • Base maps of existing data are critical to getting accurate results.
  • E-Beam™ technology facilitates the collection of real time data in a participatory manner.

Funding Summary
This project was conducted by The Nature Conservancy with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (NOAA CRCP) through Cooperative Agreement #NA13NOS4820145. Through this Partnership, TNC and NOAA work on site level management and conservation strategies for the STXEEMP. The STXEEMP management and staff supported the project by identifying stakeholders, creating outreach materials and advertising the event.

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Coastal Zone Management, East End Marine Park
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Reef Connect
Caribbean Regional Ocean Partnership Portal

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U.S. Virgin Islands – Fisheries Management

Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative – A Market-Driven Approach to a Sustainable Seafood Industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

The Challenge
Together, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, are one of the top three stressors to coral reefs throughout the Caribbean, and have contributed to dramatic declines in coral abundance, distribution and health.  The overharvest of “pot fish” (a term that locally refers to a number of fish species – many of which are herbivorous coral reef inhabitants), and the die-off of the herbivorous long-spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) have caused coral reefs in the Caribbean to shift to algal-dominated reefs. The introduction of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, a fish without natural predators in the region, has also increased stress on reefs in the region. These fish may over-populate local reefs, removing important coral reef fish species, and further compromise the ability for coral reefs to remain resilient.

The Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s mission is to establish and support a sustainable seafood industry in the US Virgin Islands. © TNC

Actions Taken
In an effort to reduce the stress on coral reefs from overfishing and harmful fishing practices, the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative was developed with the goal to encourage alternatives for consumption to important coral reef fishes.

The Initiative is comprised of the following four main components:

  1. Development and maintenance of a list of sustainably harvested food fishes and invertebrates of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).
  2. Education and engagement of commercial fishers on fisheries regulations and the importance of healthy reefs to fisheries.
  3. The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification to empower restaurants to support local commercial fishers through purchasing and serving sustainably harvested seafood.
  4. The Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign to help consumers make informed decisions about the seafood purchase.

Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the U.S. Virgin Islands
The first step for the Initiative was to form an advisory group to guide and develop activities. Fisheries staff from territorial (USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife—DPNR) and federal regulatory agencies (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA) in the region, were recruited as advisory group members. Representatives from local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the University of the Virgin Islands working on fisheries issues were also selected. The group then worked to compile and agree on a list of sustainably harvested food fishes and invertebrates for the US Virgin Islands. The resulting Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the US Virgin Islands was developed based on current USVI local and US federal fisheries regulations. The list provides information on commercially important fish and invertebrate species caught in local U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S. federal waters and uses the following three easy to understand categories to inform decisions about the seafood purchase:

After the list was developed work began to engage and educate fishers, restaurant owners and consumers on sustainable seafood options.

Education and Engagement of Commercial Fishers
In partnership with local and federal fisheries management agencies DPNR and NOAA fisheries, reef responsible training information has been integrated in to the annual process for fishing and vessel registration. Trainings are given as part of the registration process each year and are designed to increase participants’ understanding of fisheries regulations including seasonal closures, gear restrictions, and size limits. Trainings also deliver information on how catching seafood according to regulations can support the future of the USVI commercial fishery. Fishers are also connected to local restaurants that express interest in purchasing locally harvested sustainable seafood. As a result of this partnership a new program activity is underway to work with the Fisheries Advisory Council and the local and federal fisheries agencies to develop criteria for certification of sustainable seafood fishers.

Sustainable Seafood 11 Restaurant Owners and Caterers Attend Workshop

Restaurant, owners, chefs and wait staff undergo comprehensive training to become Reef Responsible Certified. © TNC

Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification
The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification was developed to empower restaurants to support local commercial fishers through purchasing and serving sustainably harvested seafood. To become a certified Reef Responsible Certified Restaurant, owners, chefs and wait staff undergo comprehensive training. The trainings are designed to increase participant understanding of how purchasing, serving and consuming locally harvested seafood can positively influence the future of the USVI commercial fishery and coral reefs. Participants are provided with outreach materials with information based on the best available science and are briefed on the negative impacts from the overharvest of herbivorous fishes, which play an important role to remove algae from reefs and provide space for corals to thrive. They also learn about seasonal closures and receive calendars with closure and catch size information. Participants are also introduced to the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat seafood list. Additionally, cooking demonstrations are provided on how to prepare “good choice” fish like invasive lionfish.

Sustainable Seafood Chef Mike preparing

Chef Mike from Savant prepares a Reef Responsible dish. © TNC

The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification program is voluntary and after the training participating restaurants must commit: 1) to support local fishers, 2) to purchase and serve fish that adhere to size limits and seasonal closure rules, 3) not to purchase or serve fish on the “Don’t Eat” portion of the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the USVI and 4) to spread awareness of Reef Responsible information through restaurant staff and patrons. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) staff and partners visit the restaurants throughout the year to check menus and specials making sure that the fish being served meets the Reef Responsible guidance listed above.

Restaurants are required to have participation at the training of staff members responsible for purchasing seafood. They are also encouraged to have wait staff attend trainings so they better understand and communicate Reef Responsible seafood options with restaurant patrons. If wait staff of an interested restaurant cannot attend the training it is requested that certified restaurant owners provide training information to staff.

Hostess Sarah with the Reef Responsible plaque at restaurant Savant, a certified Reef Responsible Restaurant on St. Croix. © TNC

Once the training is completed, the restaurant is certified as a Reef Responsible Restaurant, receives a plaque to showcase in the restaurant and is celebrated for their commitment through free advertising supported by TNC program staff. Newspaper, radio, special event and social media coverage is used to promote certified restaurants. Connections have also been made with the department of tourism to list certified restaurants on their website. The program has formed a successful partnership with the Taste of St. Croix, a premier food and wine event on the island. Reef Responsible Certified Restaurants are acknowledged at the event to further encourage community patronage. At the event the program also has a booth to provide information for interested restaurants on the program and holds lionfish cooking demonstrations. Interested restaurants are then invited to participate in Reef Responsible training workshops. See an example of the workshop invitation here.

The following outreach materials were developed to support the Training and Certification:

  • Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the USVI
  • Seasonal Closures Calendar
  • USVI Fish Fact Cards
  • Reef Responsible Certified Restaurant Plaque

Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign
The Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign was designed to create community support for the Reef Responsible certified restaurants and the overall awareness objectives of the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative. The campaign targets seafood consumers through newspaper articles, advertisements, radio talk shows, social media and events (such as A Taste of St. Croix and St. Croix ReefJam) to share information about the importance of healthy reefs and how purchasing locally, sustainably sourced seafood can help support reef recovery. Through the campaign, we also encourage people to ask questions and learn more about the seafood that they purchase and consume, whether it’s from a restaurant or directly from a commercial fisher.

How Successful has it been?
By engaging multiple stakeholders, promoting reef responsible seafood alternatives (i.e. lionfish), and highlighting the benefits to people and reefs of sustainable seafood, this Initiative has the promise to reduce fishery-related stressors, helping to build the resiliency of USVI coral reefs. The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification was launched in April 2014 at A Taste of St. Croix where nine initial certified restaurants were announced. Since then an additional 5 restaurants have been certified as Reef Responsible restaurants making the new total 14. One of the originally certified restaurants closed in 2015. To date all certified restaurants have successfully followed through on their Reef Responsible commitments. The 14 certified restaurants are celebrated for their commitment to a sustainable seafood industry for the U.S. Virgin Islands. They have also applauded TNC and the Sustainable Seafood Initiative partners for leading the development and implementation of this program, and are excited to be better connected to local fishers. Training participants have also been helping to encourage other restaurant owners and staff to become certified. The USVI Department of Tourism has expressed interest in the expansion of the Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification to St. Thomas and St. John as well as interests to replicate this program in the British Virgin Islands and in the Bahamas. Based on information gathered in follow up visits to certified restaurants, to date all have successfully followed through on their Reef Responsible commitments.

Current Certified Restaurants include: Savant, Dashi, Café Christine, Twin City Coffee House, The Mermaid, Empress Fresh Foods, eat @ cane bay, Rhythms at Rainbow, Above the Cliff, Ital In Paradise, Zion Modern Kitchen, Shoreline at Chenay, La Riene Chicken Shack, and Kendrick’s at Buccaneer.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
The Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative has received support from a diverse group of stakeholders including, fishers, private sector restaurants, fisheries managers and NGOs. This is likely a result of the transparent and inclusive processes for development and implementation of Initiative activities.

Important lessons include:

  • When developing seafood lists, seasonal closure calendars, and other outreach materials it is critical to use the best available science and current local fisheries rules and regulations.
  • Develop professional outreach materials. Restaurants are profit- and consumer- driven and will appreciate polished materials. If possible solicit communications expertise for the development of materials and media products. This will help ensure they join the program.
  • Support a group of restaurants certifying at the same time. This creates a peer group of restaurants and helps increase excitement and support for certification.
  • The support and buy-in of local fishers to the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List was very important. If the fishers and fisheries council had not supported the list we would not have proceeded with the certification effort. Their support for the list gave it and the Reef Responsible activities increased credibility.
  • Use a transparent process to develop sustainable seafood lists. Share information with all stakeholders on how the list was developed.
  • Use the best available science and regulations to develop the list and training materials.
  • Be flexible and make sure that the times of trainings or meetings are convenient for your target audience. For example the restaurant workers often cannot meet on evenings or weekends. Fishers as well cannot often attend meetings during normal business hours.
  • Plan for capacity to support communications for certified restaurants. Do not underestimate the time or expertise it takes to support this aspect of the activities.
  • The use of YouTube videos to share how to breakdown and prepare lionfish were very useful and expanded the reach and accessibility of trainings. These videos could be used and shared by participants outside of official trainings.

Funding Summary
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration USVI Fisheries Liaison

The Reef Responsible Program is a collaborative effort among:

The Nature Conservancy US Virgin Islands
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program
NOAA Fisheries
USVI Division of Fish and Wildlife
The Marine Education and Outreach USVI Style’s Initiative – Don’t Stop Talking Fish Project
Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service
St. Croix Reef Jam

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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?


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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Palau – Fisheries Management

Reforming Palau’s Data-Poor Reef Fisheries through Community-Based Approaches

Babeldaob, Ollei, Palau

Aerial view of Palau known as "70 Mile Islands" as well as the rich coral reef surrounding them. © Ian Shive

Aerial view of Palau known as “70 Mile Islands” as well as the rich coral reef surrounding them. © Ian Shive

The Challenge
Palau is composed of 12 inhabited islands and over 700 islets stretching over 700 km. It has numerous island and reef types, including volcanic and raised limestone islands, atolls, barrier reefs around much of the main island cluster, and fringing reefs in the south. Palau has the most diverse coral fauna of Micronesia, including approximately 400 species of hard corals, 300 species of soft corals, 1400 species of reef fishes, thousands of invertebrates, and Micronesia’s only saltwater crocodiles.

For centuries, Palau’s waters have provided sustenance. The Northern Reefs – the second largest fishing ground in Palau – are depended on by fishers and the surrounding communities for food, livelihoods, and income. In fact, Palauans have some of the highest per capita fish consumption compared to other regions in the Pacific. But modern fishing practices and a growing tourism industry have increased fishing pressures here. Even though Palau has a deeply-rooted conservation ethic and a large network of marine protected areas (MPAs), the increased fishing pressure has not been able to keep stocks sustainable, and there is a growing awareness that protected areas alone are insufficient to maintain viable fish populations.

To manage a fishery sustainably, it is necessary to have information about the stock: how many fish, what species, how quickly they grow and reproduce, and how many can be harvested without putting the fishery in danger of collapse. But traditional stock assessments are so expensive and resource intensive, requiring years of data collected by trained experts at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per stock, that they are prohibitive for most fisheries, especially those in developing countries. And without the stock data to inform management decisions, data-poor fisheries like those in Palau’s Northern Reefs can easily become overfished, threatening the livelihoods and food security of the people who depend on them.

Mature gonads of an emperor fish caught for the Palau Stock Assessment Project. © Andrew Smith

Mature gonads of an emperor fish caught for the Palau Stock Assessment Project. © Andrew Smith

Actions Taken
In 2012, The Nature Conservancy established a pilot project in the Northern Reefs to assess stock status using data-limited stock assessment techniques, to improve fisheries management through a community-driven approach, and to rebuild fish stocks. From August 2012 to June 2013, trained fishers helped scientists collect data on species, size, and maturity for about 2,800 fish caught in Palau’s waters. They measured their own catch as well as fish for sale at the country’s only fish market, Happy Fish Market. Palauans like to buy their fish whole, so gutting market fish to assess gonads was not initially a welcome idea with the fish sellers at the Happy Fish Market, but a $300 ‘rental’ fee negotiated with the local women sellers gave researchers access to 600 pounds of fish for data collection – a fantastic resource that also provided an opportunity to discuss Palau’s overfishing problem with a broad community of fish sellers and buyers.

The data-poor technique relies on sample size ratios to assess how much spawning is happening and how much is enough. At its most basic, the technique uses two pieces of local data, size of fish and maturity of fish, combined with existing biological information, to produce a ratio of spawning potential. As a general rule, if fish can achieve at least 20% of their natural lifetime spawning, a fishery can sustain itself. Less than that and the fishery will decline. While 20% is the minimum number, scientists hope to see fisheries achieving 30–50% of natural spawning. The findings in Palau were worrisome, showing that 60% of fish catch were juvenile, achieving just 3–5% of their lifetime spawning. The consequences of this were clear: if most fish are not reproducing, in a short time there will be no more fish.

Fishery managers and scientists have been presenting the findings of the pilot project at community meetings across Palau. With the new knowledge provided by the data, Palau’s northern fishing communities have moved quickly toward developing management strategies that could restore fish populations.

Measuring fish length as part of the Palau Stock Assessment Project. © Andrew Smith

Measuring fish length as part of the Palau Stock Assessment Project. © Andrew Smith

How Successful Has It Been?
Everyone involved in the project, from scientists to fishers, are optimistic that Palau’s reefs will soon be on the road to recovery, but management and policy reforms are still needed. Palau is moving in this direction by developing policies that shift fishing access from modern open access to rights-based systems, such as reef assignment. Fishery managers are working to integrate fishery management tools, such as minimum and maximum size limits, protection of key spawning aggregations, and improvements in the design of the nationwide network of protected areas into their fishery management strategy. Stakeholders are striving to establish nationally mandated fishery data collection at key market locations as well as a long-term fishery monitoring program using improved underwater fish monitoring methods that will provide the data needed for data-limited stock assessments.

Finally, the success of any natural resource management depends greatly on enforcement and compliance. In March 2014, The Nature Conservancy and WildAid partnered to design an enforcement system for Palau’s Northern Reefs that is practical, affordable, and feasible to implement over a four-year time frame. The system provides strategic sensor coverage to key fishing areas, MPAs, and access ways. The strategy combines high-power video cameras and a robust VHF marine radio network with the strategic placement of buoys, patrol vessels, and a floating barge to provide a constant presence and fast response capacity throughout both Marine Managed Areas (MMAs).

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Solving the overfishing problem is never easy – there are trade-offs and sacrifices.
  • Management options range from imposing size limits to closing areas for a certain length of time until fish populations can rebound. But these choices, which tend to be contentious and complicated to work out, are much easier to adopt and apply when fishers are part of assessing the problem and are engaged in discussing the solutions.
  • Cooperative effort between scientists and fishers has been key to the success of the project. Palauan fishers’ extensive knowledge and experience helped inform the scientific process and increase community awareness of the problem.

Funding Summary
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Palau Protected Areas Network Fund

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

Palau International Coral Reef Center
Palau Conservation Society
Bureau of Marine Resources
Palau Protected Areas Network Office
Murdoch University

Video: A Breakthrough for Data-Poor Fisheries Starts in Palau

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Papua New Guinea – Fisheries Management

Shared Benefits of Protecting Fish Spawning Aggregations Lead to Cooperative Management

Manus Province, Papua New Guinea

Healthy Hard Coral Reef with Anthias and Coral Grouper at Killibob's Knob dive site in Kimbe Bay of Papua New Guinea. The Coral Triangle contains 75 percent of all known coral species, shelters 40 percent of the world’s reef fish species and provides for 126 million people. © Jeff Yonover

Healthy Hard Coral Reef with Anthias and Coral Grouper at Killibob’s Knob dive site in Kimbe Bay of Papua New Guinea. The Coral Triangle contains 75 percent of all known coral species, shelters 40 percent of the world’s reef fish species and provides for 126 million people. © Jeff Yonover

The Challenge
The coral reefs of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are among the most species-diverse in the world and an important source of food and income for communities. The 40,000 km2 of coral reefs form an extensive resource that is exploited almost exclusively by small-scale artisanal and subsistence fishers. On a national level, harvests are thought to be well below the maximum sustainable yield. Despite the overall health of the PNG fishery, local over-exploitation has been noted, particularly in fisheries with access to cash markets. Fish spawning aggregations are particularly vulnerable even to light fishing pressure, which can have a profound impact on the reproductive population over a brief period and substantially reduce reproductive output.

As in many other tropical nations, fishery management in Papua New Guinea requires a community-based approach because small customary marine tenure (CMT) areas define the spatial scale of management. However, the fate of larvae originating from a fish spawning aggregation in a community’s CMT area is unknown, and thus the degree to which a community can expect their management actions to replenish the fisheries within their CMT is unclear. Therefore, information on larval dispersion is important: if larvae disperse in large numbers across tenure areas, this can provide a strong impetus for cooperative management between adjacent communities.

Conservancy marine scientist, Alison Green surveying coral during a rapid ecological assessment (REA) in the area of Manus Province, North Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea. The coral reefs of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are among the most species-diverse in the world and an important source of food and income for communities. © Louise Goggin

Conservancy marine scientist, Alison Green surveying coral during a rapid ecological assessment (REA) in the area of Manus Province, North Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea. The coral reefs of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are among the most species-diverse in the world and an important source of food and income for communities. © Louise Goggin

Actions Taken
To better understand the dispersal dynamics of fish larvae, The Australian Research Council (ARC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) conducted a genetic analysis to measure larval dispersal from a single fish spawning aggregation (FSA) of squaretail coralgrouper (Plectropomus areolatus) at Manus, Papua New Guinea. In 2004, to replenish local fish stocks, fishers within a single CMT area established a marine protected area (MPA) protecting 13% of their fishing grounds, including the studied FSA. Researchers and local fishers sampled this FSA over 2 weeks in May 2010 and collected tissue samples from, and externally tagged, 416 adult coralgroupers, which represented an estimated 43% of the FSA population.

Over 6 weeks (November–December 2010), 782 juvenile coralgroupers from 66 reefs were collected from within the CMT area and four other surrounding CMT areas up to 33 km from the sampled FSA. The analysis identified 76 juveniles from 25 reefs that were the offspring of adults sampled at the FSA.

Researchers quantified how larvae dispersing from the coralgrouper FSA contribute to recruitment in the surrounding CMT area and four adjacent CMT areas. They found that 17–25% of recruitment to the CMT area that contains the sampled FSA came from that same FSA and that in each of the four adjacent CMT areas, 6–17% of recruitment was also from the sampled FSA. Finally, the dispersal models based on these data predict that 50% of larvae will settle within 13 km and 95% within 33 km of the FSA.

Location and abundance of sampled and assigned juveniles: spatial patterns of coral grouper (A) juvenile sample collection and (B) juvenile parentage assignments. Green (A) and yellow (B) circles are scaled to the number of juveniles. Adults were sampled from a single fish spawning aggregation (red cross), and juveniles were collected from 66 individual reefs (green circles in A). White dashed lines show the customary marine tenure boundaries of the five communities, with the name of each community in white (A). Land is black, coral reefs are gray, and water is blue (Almany et al. 2013).

Location and abundance of sampled and assigned juveniles: spatial patterns of coral grouper (A) juvenile sample collection and (B) juvenile parentage assignments. Green (A) and yellow (B) circles are scaled to the number of juveniles. Adults were sampled from a single fish spawning aggregation (red cross), and juveniles were collected from 66 individual reefs (green circles in A). White dashed lines show the customary marine tenure boundaries of the five communities, with the name of each community in white (A). Land is black, coral reefs are gray, and water is blue (Almany et al. 2013).

How Successful Has It Been?
The final results and recommendations of this study were presented in November 2011 to all five communities that participated in the research as well as in Mbuke, the largest community among the offshore islands to the south of the study area. The three main conclusions from this work are:

  • Small, managed areas that protect FSAs can help rebuild and sustain a community’s coralgrouper fishery because many larvae stay close to the FSA.
  • The coralgrouper fishery represents one large stock that would be better managed collectively because some larvae and fish travel across CMT boundaries.
  • The results of the coralgrouper study are similar to results from other studies on both fishery and non-fishery species, all of which suggest that some larvae only travel short distances from their parents.

These results suggest that community-based management can definitely provide local benefits for some fishery species, and possibly for a wide range of fishery species.

At the time of the study, there was no formal framework in place to support collective management. Communities had traditionally made independent decisions about the fisheries within their CMT area. However, many community members immediately saw the value in collective community-based fisheries management after the results of this study were presented. Those communities in support of collective management, which consisted of eight Titan tribal areas including the five CMT areas that participated in the coralgrouper study, sent 70 leaders to a gathering in June 2013 to officially establish the Manus Endras Asi Resource Development Network.

Island fishing boats and children in the area of Manus Province, North Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea. © Louise Goggin

Island fishing boats and children in the area of Manus Province, North Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea. © Louise Goggin

The eight tribal areas of the network contain more than 10,000 people spread across approximately a third of Manus province (~73,000 km2 of ocean). The network was established around existing sociocultural boundaries, with all members sharing a common language (Titan), common religion (Wind Nation), and a maritime culture. Some strategies the network used for achieving its mission include: advocating for and supporting equitable and sustainable development to improve livelihoods; preservation of cultural heritage; developing a learning forum to share experiences among network members to build local capacity; improving communities’ resilience to climate change through community-based projects; supporting research partnerships between communities and scientists that benefit communities; and establishing a network of managed and protected areas.

Since its inception in June 2013, the network has crafted and signed an official charter establishing itself as a registered business, developed and agreed on a strategic plan, and established a formal relationship with the Papua New Guinea National Fisheries Authority (NFA) to coordinate fisheries management activities. A recent outcome of this link with NFA has been a pledge from NFA to provide shallow water fish aggregating devices (FADs) to each community in the network to reduce fishing pressure on reefs.

At the September 2014 network meeting, the Tribal Council of Chiefs, acting as representatives of their tribal areas, approved the establishment of a comprehensive system of managed and protected areas across the entire area under the network’s jurisdiction. The two main goals of this system of managed and protected areas are to ensure the sustainability of a range of fishery resources and to protect cultural heritage sites. Next steps include a participatory planning workshop to integrate community priorities and conservation targets, local knowledge, and scientific data into a comprehensive spatial management plan for the area.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • Increased cooperation between communities in managing their fisheries benefits both fish populations and communities.
  • Actions taken by one community will influence its neighbors, and cooperation among communities in managing a fishery is likely to enhance both fisheries sustainability and the long-term persistence of fish meta-populations.
  • The strength of connectivity between coral reefs will decline as the distance between them increases, and localized larvae dispersal is common in coral reef fishes.
  • Resolving larval dispersal patterns and their relationship to recruitment may provide a compelling argument for cooperative management.
  • Fisheries management decisions on the size and spacing of marine protected areas may provide benefits to a range of species simultaneously.

Funding Summary
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
The Nature Conservancy’s Rodney Johnson/Katherine Ordway Stewardship Endowment
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Lead Organizations
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
The Nature Conservancy

James Cook University
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
The University of Hawaii at Hilo
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Video: Larval dispersal and its influence on fisheries management

Local Benefits of Community-based Management: Using Small Managed Areas to Rebuild and Sustain Some Coastal Fisheries (pdf)

Dispersal of Grouper Larvae Drives Local Resource Sharing in a Coral Reef Fishery (pdf)

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U.S. Virgin Islands – Disturbance Response

The U.S. Virgin Islands BleachWatch Program

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

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

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Micronesia – Predator Outbreaks

A Well-Developed Community-Based Marine Protected Area Proves Resilient to a Crown-of-Thorns Sea Star Outbreak

Nimpal Channel Marine Conservation Area, Yap, Federated States of Micronesia

The Challenge
Yap State is situated in the westernmost region of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The main island of Yap State is located within the Indo-Pacific center of biodiversity. The island is approximately 100 square kilometers, with a densely vegetated and hilly landscape. It is home to 7400 residents spread over 10 municipalities, a relatively small population compared to the other states of Micronesia. The population and urban center are slowly growing, placing increasing pressure on the islands’ natural resources for subsistence and economic gain.

The Nimpal Channel is located off the central-western coast of Yap. Both Okaw and Kaday villages have their fishing grounds associated with the Nimpal Channel. The villages are within the municipality of Weloy, home to approximately 1000 residents. In 2005, a men’s village meeting was called to address the ongoing problem of overfishing in their channel, and decided to seek help and information from outside their community. In 2006, a rapid ecological assessment (REA) was conducted across Yap Proper, including the Nimpal region, so that stakeholders could get a better sense of the current status of their resources. The coral-reef monitoring and assessment team for the REA process consisted of many knowledgeable fishermen from Okaw and Kaday villages, as well as regional scientists with local and global expertise. Following data collection and reporting efforts, and realizing that Nimpal’s resources were not as well off as many other places in Yap due to both natural causes and local fishing pressures, these two villages began discussing their desire to set aside part of their reefs as no-take fishing areas.

Monitoring seagrass beds. © Nimpal Channel MCA.

Monitoring seagrass beds. © Nimpal Channel MCA.

While the Nimpal Channel is very narrow (approximately 0.5 kilometers in width) and has only a limited mangrove stand associated with it, the two communities proposed to make it a Marine Conservation Area (MCA). Through the REA process, marine scientists recommended areas for protection that were larger, deeper, and had more extensive connections with nearshore mangrove habitats known to nourish juvenile fish populations. To marine scientists, the area that Okaw and Kaday proposed to set aside was clearly influential for the locally-owned marine resources, yet was smaller in size and harbored less biological diversity in comparison to other larger and more extensive channel systems nearby. In short, this was not the most ideal area to bolster fishery resources based upon ecological criteria alone. However, the timing was right, and the two communities strongly supported management in that area. Shortly after, in May 2008, Okaw and Kaday, in partnership, publically declared the Nimpal Channel as a Marine Conservation Area with technical support from the Yap Community Action Program.

Within only 1-2 years, monitoring results began to document improved fishery resources in the conservation area. These positive results were an immediate testament to strong community support for management, and dedicated local enforcement. Four years after formalizing the Nimpal Channel Marine Conservation Area, in 2012, a more formal scientific assessment of the channel reefs highlighted that the reef’s condition is second-highest among other MCAs in the region despite having one of the smallest extents. The MCA exceeded the expectations of many marine scientists and changed the way they thought about establishing new marine protected areas going forward. In this case, strong social acceptance and enforcement was more important than ecological criteria.

A crown-of-thorns starfish on a reef in Yap outside of Nimpal MCA. © Peter Houk

A crown-of-thorns starfish on a reef in Yap outside of Nimpal MCA. © Peter Houk

In late spring 2009, Acanthaster planci, commonly known as the crown-of-thorns sea star (COTS), began populating the coral reefs around Micronesia (from Pohnpei westward to Yap). A. planci is a carnivorous species of starfish that preferentially preys upon hard corals such as Acropora spp. and Montipora spp. A. planci were first quantified in monitoring programs off the southwest coast of Yap, and anecdotal reports from fishermen and data suggested a northward migration up the west coast of the island.

Actions Taken
Healthy coral reef systems with high levels of fishery resources have been shown to be resistant to the threat of an A. planci outbreak based upon recent evidence from places like the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji. While the exact mechanism remains elusive, there appears to be some added resistance to these natural disturbance events from healthy fish populations through predation and/or other biological interactions. Reefs that have already been stressed by increased sedimentation, reefs with low numbers of predators due to overfishing, and reefs with low coral diversity have proven most vulnerable to A. planci predation.

Acropora coral showing feeding scars from crown-of-thorns starfish on a reef outside of Nimpal MCA in Yap. © Peter Houk

Acropora coral showing feeding scars from crown-of-thorns starfish on a reef outside of Nimpal MCA in Yap. © Peter Houk

This outbreak of A. planci was not a new threat for Yap. A. planci outbreaks have been described as natural, cyclical events. There are a few theories on why the outbreaks occur. Some experts theorize that COTS outbreaks occur when the sea stars ‘sense’ oceanic conditions are most conducive for their larval offspring to successfully develop, and hence the initial outbreaks may be triggered by some form of nutrient enrichment in the surface waters near coral reefs. Following spawning from initial population outbreaks, it has also been hypothesized that larvae may get caught in ocean currents and somehow influence secondary starfish outbreaks downstream. In Yap, the single most significant COTS event was documented in the early 1970s, although there is local knowledge of smaller outbreaks over the years.

To the local community, the sea stars are well known, but their lifecycles remain mysterious. Locals understand the origins of threats to the reefs like bleaching, sedimentation, and overfishing; however outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns sea stars just suddenly occur without any obvious proximal cause. During the 2009 A. planci outbreak there was no official attempt on Yap to remove the sea stars from their reefs, but fishermen noted their presence. In the case of the Nimpal MCA, the communities did not choose to remove starfish because of adherence to the established no-take MCA policy.

How Successful Has it Been?
The recovery of the coral reefs to the A. planci outbreak in Yap varied. A recent study revisited the study sites where coral populations were monitored as part of the 2006 REA survey and found interesting results. Many reefs along the western coast of Yap showed an expected decline in coral colony sizes and diversity, yet there was one unique exception. The Nimpal Channel MCA appeared to be more resilient to the disturbance event compared with sites to the north and south of this channel. Remarkably, no sea stars were found in the protected area during surveys shortly after the COTS event. In fact, monitoring of the area during the disturbance revealed an increase in coral colony sizes, no significant change in diversity within coral groups, and consistently high fish biomass. Reefs in the protected area showed high abundances of Porites spp. (the less desired coral for A. planci) but Acropora spp. also remained throughout the disturbance period. The area’s resistance to COTS is hypothesized to be due to an intact predator fish population and high coral diversity.

Community participants in a planning workshop. © Nimpal Channel MCA

Community participants in a planning workshop. © Nimpal Channel MCA

In contrast, formerly diverse reefs with extensive coral growth, such as off the southwestern tip of Yap, had the greatest coral reef damage after the sea star outbreak, with little recovery reported as of 2013. Other coral reefs to the north of the Nimpal Channel MCA started to recover in 2012, but recovery has been a slow process and remains ongoing. These findings suggest that the establishment of the locally-managed MCA may have benefitted the resilience of Nimpal’s reefs, and might be supporting recovery along adjacent reefs.

This case study highlights the importance of well-managed marine protected areas for weathering disturbance events. Nimpal Channel MCA appeared to provide added resistance to the COTS disturbance through a series of highly influential, but still poorly understood, ecological processes.

Installing monitoring equipment. © Nimpal Channel MCA

Installing monitoring equipment. © Nimpal Channel MCA

While the Nimpal Channel MCA was initially established to aid fish stock recovery, it was later found to have added benefits of enhanced resistance to COTS. The success of the Nimpal Channel Marine Conservation Area in both enhancing fish populations and mitigating the damage done by the 2009 disturbance continues to be a very popular and productive discussion at regional management meetings across Micronesia. This example shows that marine protected areas have additional benefits that we are only beginning to understand. Certainly the list of benefits will grow into the future.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
People, rather than biology and science, are most important to think about when establishing a marine protected area. Without the community’s dedication to protecting their channel, the Nimpal Channel Marine Conservation Area would never have been established. Based on biological considerations and the small size of the managed area, scientists felt other areas were better suited to set aside as a protected area; it was only through the community’s will and support that their protected area was established. Science is used to drive management recommendations, but other factors might be more relevant for successful management.

The success of a marine protected area is dependent on community involvement and knowledge. The success of the Nimpal Channel MCA is due to community-based decisions based in traditional ecological knowledge and supported by scientific measures. Consequently, the Nimpal Channel MCA is one of the few functioning protected areas in Yap.

Quantitative monitoring is essential for responding to increased frequency and intensity of disturbances. Identify critical biological thresholds in your management area. Reef ecosystems are complex systems that can behave in a non-linear manner (for instance, the decline of a predator fish population might not have the effect of reducing a reef’s resistance to an A. planci outbreak until the predator fish population declines past a critical threshold). Part of this non-linear behavior is related to trophic interactions (interactions between predators and prey, for example). Science has not fully explained trophic interactions and thresholds in coral reef systems. Disturbances are becoming more and more frequent; there might be a COTS outbreak one year and a bleaching event the next year. Because of the increasing frequency and severity of threats to coral reefs, it is important to collect quantifiable data to be able to perceive rates of change. For example, monitoring fish biomass in your area can be a good starting point to understanding how fish biomass is related to reef resilience. The relative level of biomass within different trophic levels may be related to the maintenance of coral reefs through time.

Funding Summary and Partners

Kaday Community and Cultural Development Organization
Pacific Marine Resources Institute
Yap Community Action Program
Marine Laboratory, University of Guam
Water and Environmental Resource Institute of the Western Pacific, University of Guam
Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC)
The Nature Conservancy Pacific Islands Program
Micronesian Conservation Trust
Conservation International’s Pacific Islands Program
Pacific Development & Conservation Trust
OneReef Micronesia

Written by: Peter Houk, Marine Laboratory, University of Guam
Berna Gorong, Kaday Community and Cultural Development Organization
Eva Buthung, Yap Community Action Program, Marine Program

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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