Marine Monitoring: Basing conservation on reliable science

At the recently held Fifth International Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management Symposium I (Alan Zoox Programmes Officer) was told “if [the science] is difficult to understand or contains errors/loopholes eventually someone will be unable to replicate your success or will find that error and everything the conservation is based on will crumble.”

Monitoring protocols are often labour intensive. They take a lot of people, a lot of time to gather enough data to collate a representative sample on which to do an analysis. However this should not be a reason to leave monitoring out when planning a project, just advice to get it right the first time!

Monitoring levels
Levels at which monitoring can be achieved; Individually looking at molecular reactions; Population, looking at size:class distribution; Community, looking at diversity and species abundance

Monitoring is essential in determining the health of our reefs and as they slowly decline, scientists need to be able to monitor that slow change. This can be undertaken at different scales depending on your resources. Measurements can be made at a molecular level, for example how ocean acidification is effecting gonad growth in sea urchins to a whole community’s reaction to an overabundance of Crown-of-Thorns sea star. Long term data collection is essential at all levels so that early warning systems can be produced to identify and quantify any change.

There are three increasingly intensive tiers of monitoring to think about. Using the public to collect broad scale data over a small area, using scientifically trained staff to gather medium scale data over a large area, and using skilled scientists for research to collect high resolution data over a large area. Each level has its own advantages depending on the resources available.

For every monitoring project you should start with a null hypothesis, a statement that is the opposite of the change you hope to see. For example: After implementation of the protected area, there will be no increase in target fish populations.

After conducting an appropriate amount of data collection over a period of time, and statistical analysis, the results will then show you if target fish populations have increased or not. If the populations have grown, then you can reject the null hypothesis and assume the protection is working to increase fish populations.

Null hypothesis creation has to be done carefully to ensure that changes are not hidden by Blind Fishpoor science. If you try and monitor changes in fish populations inside and outside the protected area, the resulting analysis will not allow you to reject the null hypothesis. This is because fish cannot see protection boundaries and have wide territories. As fish population grows inside the protected area, fish will spread to the outside and increase the population there also. A null hypothesis comparing inside and outside protected areas can only work for non-mobile species such as coral.

Once the hypothesis has been created, the fun part is the data collection. This can be done using a variety of methods depending on the scale of data necessary. When determining where to survey, a Manta Tow is appropriate. This is the broadest method of data collection and allows a large amount of  data to be collated in a very short time. Once the research area is focused then the scale can be reduced using belt transects, quadrats, point intercepts or fish counts. Data must be expressed as logical numbers e.g. 32% coral cover instead of ‘medium’ coral cover. This ensures the methodology can be replicated with the data can compared over time. Using numbers to quantify data is much more accurate because it is a direct measure and removes surveyor bias to what ‘medium’ and ‘good’ coral cover is.

By incorporating biophysical (coral cover, size: class distribution, number of new recruits, extent of coral bleaching, sea surface temperature, and visibility) factors into your research you can also determine if there are wider influencers on your results. For example, counting new recruits, tells you about juveniles but nothing about their survival rates. Counting size:class distribution (where you measure each coral, record its species and lifeform) you discover more about the age of the researched community.

iNaturalistBy making yourself more aware and gaining as much experience in these areas as possible, you become very attractive to prospective employers. By participating in citizen science projects such as Sea Search in the UK, or using the seak.it app or iNaturalist to record species, not only are you increasing your scientific diving capabilities but you are exposing yourself to Seakcommunity level research that assists in your species ID skills, data collection techniques, understanding of key ecological concepts, and develops your knowledge of marine ecosystems.

Reef Watch

A Zoox volunteer being trained in Reef Watch methodology and the necessary tools to get started!

During the Zoox training weeks we teach volunteers to conduct Reef Watch and Seagrass-Watch surveys. This provides our volunteers with the opportunity to become comfortable with broad-scale methodologies that can be easily used and interpreted by managers to assess the state of their jurisdictional ecosystems. Previous volunteers have worked with Local Government Officials to conduct Seagrass-Watch surveys to increase the amount of available data on the health of local sea grasses. This data is also sent to seagrass-watch headquarters in Australia who can use the data as part of their international databases.

Reef Watch was developed in Phuket’s Marine Biological Centre as a way for dive guides to easily identify changes in their ecosystem. In this way, a soft coral die off was noticed and research tier monitoring was able to occur with the result being that there was a cold water upwelling that stressed out the coral. Once the upwelling subsided, it was noticed by the guides that the corals recovered. In this way, broad scale community monitoring can be used to influence more intensive research based monitoring efforts when it is necessary.

It is also important to note that funding bodies will not accept projects that are unable to report back on whether it has met the objectives and the only way this can be determined is through a carefully designed monitoring project!

Marine Monitoring

Want to learn more about hypothesis creation, scientific project design, monitoring techniques and report writing? Click the picture to find out how you can develop your professional skills through the Zoox training modules for the benefit of your career in marine conservation.

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