The St Andrews Prize for the Environment

University of St Andrews


2014 Finalist

Empowering Local Communities to Improve Reef Health

Empowering Local Communities to Improve Reef Health

In 1993, an international meeting was held in Miami to determine the state of the world's coral reefs. One hundred and fifty top scientists were unable to answer the question because data was available for only a few reefs. Coral reefs provide millions of dollars of value in recreation, fisheries, boating and scuba diving in many locations from Florida to Tahiti, therefore more data was needed.

Dr Gregor Hodgson, a marine biologist specialising in coral reef ecology and coastal and marine spatial planning, designed a simple yet extremely innovative and scientifically rigorous method called Reef Check (RC) to survey coral reefs using citizen scientists from local communities, trained and led by professional marine biologists.

A team of only 20 volunteer community divers completed the first global survey of coral reefs in 1997. The survey of 350 reefs in 31 countries was shocking – a global crisis due primarily to overfishing of herbivores.

To address this, Hodgson began training fishermen to take part in Reef Check to conduct surveys of their own reefs. In the Philippines, having seen the damage for themselves, the fishermen worked with Reef Check to establish a marine park and a tourism business offering snorkelling and kayaking. Today, Gilutungan Island is an economic and ecological success story, with many fish, a healthy reef and economy due to Reef Check's monitoring programme. These methods have now been replicated in Indonesia and in other countries including the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the worst affected coral reefs in the world.

Reef Check teams now operate in 90 tropical countries and in 2006 the programme was expanded to California’s cold-water rocky-reef ecosystem.

Dr Hodgson worked on coral reef studies whilst on an East West Centre scholarship at the University of Hawaii. For his PhD, he completed the first 'ridges to reefs' ecological economics study of the impacts of coastal logging on coral reefs in El Nido in the Philippines.

In 1993 a scientific controversy arose regarding the health of the world’s coral reefs. Hodgson was asked to design a protocol to survey coral reefs globally. His innovative 'Reef Check' protocol was designed to be used by volunteer citizen-scientists, trained and led by professional marine biologists, and was based on 30 easy-to-identify, information rich, 'indicator organisms' such as spiny lobster and grouper. Based on the results of his first global survey, he was the first to publically declare a ‘Global Coral Reef Crisis’, primarily due to overfishing.

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