The Reefs at Risk indicator presents our best estimate of likely threats to coral reefs from human activities, but it is only an estimate.
Our results confirm that there is a critical need for detailed monitoring and assessment of reef habitats in order to better document where and how coral reefs are threatened and to understand what measures are needed to safeguard them.
Scientists and managers have only rudimentary, incomplete data on the status and health of coral reef ecosystems. For example, we still lack a complete global map depicting reef location, and the vast majority of coral reefs are unassessed.
This and other basic information is essential for informed decision making by resource management agencies, fishers, the urism industry, and other sectors economically dependent on reef resources. The public, non-governmental organizations and scientists need such data to better understand and advocate for the protection and stewardship of coral reefs.
These data gaps are not for lack of tools. There are a range of techniques for assessing and monitoring coral reefs, each with advantages and limitations. Generally, these entail tradeoffs between cost and detail, and range from the use of satellite imagery to map reef location (relatively low cost, but low detail) to running underwater transects to measure reef health (high cost, high detail).
The optimal approach is through multilevel sampling, where information obtained from limited, detailed high-resolution sampling is extrapolated to large areas based on low-resolution data of wide coverage.
The goal is to use as much information as possible and available to improve assessments at national, regional, and global scales.
As of 1998, several major new initiatives were underway to collect new data and synthesize existing information so as to build a picture of the status of reefs worldwide. These include:
- Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN): GCRMN will rely on governments and local communities to regularly assess the health of coral reefs and their fish populations in about 80 countries of the world. Permanent transects are to be established on many reefs. The data will be fed into ReefBase (see below). GCRMN is coordinated by the Australian Institute for Marine Sciences and the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management and is a joint program of the International Oceanographic Commission, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the United Nations Environment Programme. (http://www.gcrmn.org/)
- Reef Check Program. Through this volunteer effort, hundreds of diving groups around the world are organizing annual field trips to gather transect data on selected coral reefs. The Reef Check protocol (methodology) is simple, requiring only a few hours to explain, but is dependent on the involvement of coral reef scientists to supervise site selection and data gathering. Three hundred reefs in 30 countries were surveyed between June and August 1997. (http://www.reefcheck.org)
- Other volunteer programs: Throughout the world, increasing numbers of volunteers are conducting coral reef surveys with organizations such as Reef Watch, Reef Keeper, REEF, Frontier, and Coral Cay Conservation. Efforts are underway to coordinate this work. In many cases, volunteer surveys have had substantial impact on coral reef management and public awareness.
- The goal of Reef Watch: Biodiversity at Risk is to assess the health of reef systems and to establish global scientific protocolsfor coral reef preservation and conservation.
- Reef Watch, Australia is an environment-monitoring program run by the community and coordinated by the Conservation Council of South Australia Inc.
- Reef Keeper International is a non-profit membership organization exclusively dedicated to the worldwide protection of coral reefs and their marine life.
- The goal of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is to educate, enlist and enable divers and non-divers alike to become active stewards in the conservation of coral reefs and other marine habitats.
- Coral Cay Conservation. Providing resources to help sustain livelihoods and alleviate poverty through the protection, restoration and management of coral reefs and tropical forests.
- ReefBase: ReefBase was initiated in late 1993 to consolidate and disseminate information useful in managing coral reefs. This database, produced by ICLARM, is the most comprehensive source of information on reefs available, providing ecological and socioeconomic data on sites around the world. It includes digital maps of coral reefs provided by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), space shuttle and satellite images contributed by the National Atmospheric and Space Administration (NASA) and others, and photographs of reefs contributed by volunteers. ReefBase is currently distributed yearly on CD-ROMs, and major portions are available through a Web site (http://www.reefbase.org).
- Bringing scientists together The International Coral Reef Symposia (ICRS) are held approximately every four years, and serve as a primary focal point for the analysis and official release of information on coral reef status. The next session will be held October 23-27, 2000 in Bali, Indonesia (see, http://www.nova.edu/ocean/9icrs/9icrs.html for more information).
In November 1998, a new series of conferences will be initiated, focused particularly on management concerns. The first International Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management Symposium, was held in Australia, and provided a forum for the evaluation of the success of the International Coral Reef Initiative in the three and a half years since the first global workshop.
Other periodic conferences of importance in the release and critical evaluation of reef information include the regional meetings of the International Society for Reef Studies, the Pacific Science Congresses, the West-Pac Conferences, and many others.
Most available data collection is focused on the biological and physical dimensions of reefs:
- species found within these ecosystems,
- the location of these habitats,
- degree of degradation, etc.
Socioeconomic and political information can help managers, scientists, and others better understand the direct and underlying factors that result in changes in reef condition (for example, subsidies and laws that result in overfishing). Information that can be used to quantify the direct and indirect values derived from coral reef ecosystems is important input for weighing development and management options. Collection of such policy-relevant data should be a priority in future monitoring and assessment efforts.