“REEF CHECK, HAS BEEN INVESTIGATING THE HEALTH OF REEFS AND OCEANS AND FISHERIES FOR THE PAST 20 YEARS WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY EMPOWERING AVERAGE CITIZENS TO CARRY OUT THEIR OWN RESEARCH” – ETHAN STEWART
No matter what part of this planet you call home, even if you are a couple thousand miles from the nearest coastline, the ocean is fundamental to your survival. Covering roughly 3/4ths of the earth’s surface, serving as a potent CO2 bank and processing center, and home to an ever fragile web of life and teeny tiny organisms that are paramount in putting oxygen into the atmosphere, healthy oceans make life on land possible. As Reef Check founder and coral reef ecologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson put it recently on a visit to Outerknown headquarters, “Every time you take a breath- it doesn’t matter where- all the gasses you breath in have been through the ocean.”
But all is not well under the sea. Not even close.
That was the big ticket takeaway when Hodgson popped in to talk during lunch in mid-March and tell us a bit about the work of his organization Reef Check, an internationally focused non-profit that has been investigating the health of reefs and oceans and fisheries for the past 20 years while simultaneously empowering average citizens and ocean-goers to carry out their own research and become stewards of the salt water playgrounds they love so much. “It is bad out there. Very bad,” summed up Hodgson during his rather sobering presentation, “unfortunately, we are only just starting to see the tip of the iceberg [of manmade destruction]. The damage that is going to happen is going to be pretty amazing.”
Above: NOAA’s coral beaching map. | Below: A now endangered sea bass from the early 20th century.
Reef Check’s journey began in 1993 when a geologist at the University of Miami, Bob Ginsberg, organized the world’s first summit on the health of coral reefs. As it turned out, no such widespread study of reefs had ever been done so Hodgson, who was working as an environmental consultant out of Hong Kong at the time and well versed in monitoring protocols, got the call to develop a system for widespread reef monitoring. His initial program was used by scientists from some 31 countries to look at over 350 different reefs and the results were thorough, impressive, and anything but positive. “Right away, it was really bad and really big news,” recalled Hodgson. “Most of those valuable top of the food chain indicator species that we were telling people to look for- things that go a long way to showing how healthy and stable a reef is- were straight up missing. They were nowhere to be found on reefs all over the world.” And so, by 1996, Reef Check Worldwide was up and running.
In the time since, Hodgson and company have grown Reef Check to some 93 countries (only 101 have reefs within their boundaries) with over 10,000 surveys across 4,350 different reefs, including an underwater survey of the entire California coast each and every year. Utilizing a small army of surfers, recreational and commercial fishermen, scuba divers, yachters, kayakers, and students of all ages- all trained by Reef Check to be “citizen scientists”- the organization has fleshed out the world’s most comprehensive assessment of reef health to date. “It is all about immersion learning and getting people into the water and involved,” said Hodgson.
To hear Hodgson tell it, there are 3 primary problems facing reef health today. First and foremost is over fishing. It is no secret that some 85% of the world’s fisheries have been fished out of existence. But what is generally overlooked is how this impacts the health of reefs, which, it should be noted, are very much living organisms. As over-fishing has grown, fishermen around the world have begun to fish further and further down the food chain. For example, if people have historically fished Grouper but find their catches dwindling, they will turn to the next in line such as Doctor fish or Parrot fish. This phenomenon has wreaked havoc on the food chains associated with reefs, throwing the dynamic and carefully balanced symbiosis of life required for healthy reef growth into a death spiral. “It’s the types of fish and the number of fish and the size of the fish- all of these things are less now than they used to be,” offered Hodgson with shuttering conviction.
“IT IS ALL ABOUT IMMERSION LEARNING AND GETTING PEOPLE INTO THE WATER AND INVOLVED,” – GREGOR HODGSON
The second issue is ocean acidification, a particularly nasty side effect of our collective carbon addictions. Approximately 40% of manmade CO2 emissions put into the atmosphere, a number that has grown exponentially since the Industrial Revolution, winds up in our ocean and lakes and rivers. The ocean, being the incredibly dynamic and absorptive thing that it is, takes this massive uptick in carbon dioxide and, as it works to find chemical equilibrium, creates carbonic acid. It is the increased presence of the latter that leads to the acidification. The result is areas of ocean with altered Ph levels such that large swaths of coral die off in bleaching events and food chains teeter on the brink of collapse as certain crustaceans and shellfish can not adequately form their outer shells during development. Even more damning, due to the slow moving nature of our carbon emissions traveling through the atmosphere and the sea, the destructive check written by our collective oil and gas and coal habits won’t be fully cashed until long after we have changed our polluting ways.
The final problem facing coral reef health is the increasing temperature of our oceans. As oceans warm as part and parcel to climate change, deadly bleaching events are becoming more and more common.
Above: Coral bleaching in action. | Citizen Activism in action.
“IT IS NOT UNCOMMON TO SEE ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND CAREER FISHERMEN WORKING SIDE BY SIDE ON A REEF CHECK MISSION ALONG WITH SCHOOL CHILDREN OF ALL AGES.”- ETHAN STEWART
In fact, for the past 3 years and counting, reefs around the world over have been dying off at an alarming rate, due to the bleaching. “When corals get too hot, they lose the algae that lives inside of them. That algae is a big part of how a reef stays healthy and grows,” explained Hodgson. “If a reef loses it’s algae for 2 weeks or more there is a real good chance it will die.” This past year’s historic El Nino event, with it’s calling card of increased ocean temps, has only worsened the situation. In fact, according to Reef Check data, large swaths of coral from the Red Sea to Haiti have been killed off with an estimated 25% of the world’s entire coral population in line to suffer a similar fate before 2016, should forecasts prove accurate. With fishing and tourism a big part of the bottom line for most countries with coral reefs, such a die off would have very real and very troubling socio-economic impacts for upwards of 1 billion people, cautioned Hodgson.
But the work being done by Reef Check and their scores of salty volunteers isn’t just about better understanding the doom and gloom going on beneath the surface of our oceans. They are also about solutions. Real world solutions.
Data harvested by Reef Check goes a long way to informing marine protection policy such as California’s established network of Marine Protected Areas and deciding if these protection plans are successful or, if not, how they might be fine tuned to improve their preservation performance. Reef Check data also helps governments’ figure out the delicate balance of healthy fishery management while simultaneously working to unite factions of ocean users who typically have been at odds with each other. It is not uncommon to see environmentalists and career fishermen working side by side on a Reef Check mission along with school children of all ages. And then there is the money factor, especially in 3rd world nations where economics are perpetually on thin ice. By better educating people about the way reefs work and what exactly their value is both with and without fish, Reef Check has been able to change fishing practices from the ground up in ways that policy alone cannot achieve. As Hodgson put it, “No matter your background, if you get under the water and see for yourself what is happening, it is impossible not to think about things differently.”
Born and raised on Cape Cod, Ethan Stewart has been calling Santa Barbara home off and on since that great El Nino winter of 1998. On his way to a career in journalism, Stewart has worked as a bellhop, a carpenter, a surf shop lackey, an overnight security guard on a sprawling Gaviota ranch, a delivery truck driver, a school teacher, and a landscaper. A passionate explorer of Mother Nature’s more open and wild places, Stewart reckons Boston Red Sox baseball is the closest thing he has to religion, considers the ocean to be a mandatory daily activity, has been sleeping with sand in his bed for as long as he can remember, and has a dog named Danger.