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Coral Reef Monitoring

What Is Coral Reef Monitoring?

When taking into consideration the many threats that coral reefs are under in oceans all across the world, it is important to consider all of the different strategies that are being used to monitor our reefs and their ecosystems. Monitoring is important because we are able to predict and prevent different events that could affect coral reefs. Monitoring is the gathering of data and information on coral reef ecosystems or on those people who use coral reef resources.[1] It should be repeated on a regular basis, preferably over an extended period of time. Coral reefs have natural changes that occur over time; however, they are also affected by activities on land that add nutrients and sediments to the ocean, increase air pollution, and contribute to climate changes. Therefore, to observe these changes scientists and organizations record variations in coral cover, fish populations, species diversity,coral bleaching, and disease-related events. [2] As a result of monitoring, we hope to be able to build resilience amongst the reefs so that they are more capable of resisting the impacts that some of these stressors induce on them, as well as make them to where they can recover more quickly. In addition to building resilience, the information gathered from monitoring can better help in the process of reef conservation in which we focus on the protection and restoration of these ecosystems. [3]

How Reefs Are Commonly Monitored [3]

Rover Dive on Reef
Rover Dive on Reef
  • Manta Tow: A Manta Tow consists of a manta board being pulled behind a boat and a diver holds onto the board as the boat slowly moves forward. After 2 minutes, the boat stops and allows the diver to record what was observed and give the coral cover a rating from 0-5.
  • Transects: Transect surveys are conducted along lines that either run parallel or perpendicular to the reef.
  • Quadrats: With Quadrats, a set area is divided into many segments and each of these segments act as a sampling unit. The data is acquired quickly and inexpensively.
  • Photography and Video: Underwater video and photography are other reliable methods used to monitor reefs, and consist of simply taking photos and recording areas of the reefs.
  • Roving Dives: A Roving Dive is a visual survey method in which the diver observes and collects data on a waterproof slate.

Benefits of Monitoring

  • Resource assessment and mapping: having the knowledge of what resources are in the reef system, whether or not they should be managed, and where they are located
  • Resource status and long-term trends: observing the status of the resources and how they are evolving over time, i.e. global warming
  • Status and long-term trends of user groups: knowing who uses the coral reef system, what patterns and attitudes they have towards the reef, and how those user actions are altering the reef
  • Impacts of large-scale disturbances: how impacts like coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish, disease outbreaks, tropical storms, etc. affect coral reefs
  • Impacts of human activities: how human activities like fishing, land use practices, coastal developments, and tourism are affecting reefs
  • Performance evaluation & adaptive management: how monitoring can be used to measure success of management goals and assist in adaptive management
  • Building resilience: how to alter Marine Protected Areas so that they are more resilient to large-scale disturbances[1]
  • Education and public awareness raising which will hopefully increase understanding and appreciation of the coral reef ecosystems
  • Contributing to local, regional, and global networks, as well as, partners for the cooperative conservation and management of coral reefs and coral reef ecosystems to share information learned and assist in the management of other reefs [4]

Reef Monitoring Projects

The United States Virgin Islands Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program

The United States Virgin Islands Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program is one of the most important programs designed to monitor and track the status of the reefs in the US Virgin Islands. It is funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and administered by The Division of Coastal Zone Management under the USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources Administration. They conduct an annual survey of the reefs within the US Virgin Islands every year. [5]

Objectives: The objective of this program is to monitor and track the status of reefs and its inhabitants in areas around the US Virgin Islands; St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. It also focuses on threats to reef systems such as pollution, overfishing, and thermal stress. They work closely to link changes in reef health with specific stressors and figure out the plan of action that would best preserve the reef and the fish communities. They also find ways to study threatened species as well as other components of the reef system that we know little information about. [6]

Coral Cover in The US Virgin Islands
Coral Cover in The US Virgin Islands

Methodology/ Experimental Design:

  • Visual fish census
  • Belt transects
  • Roving dives
  • Fish counts[3]

A Few Key Points From The 2011 Annual Report:

  • Due to human-induced global warming and rising ocean temperatures, the bleaching events of 2005 and 2010 have left devastating effects on the USVI reefs. After the event in 2005, 60% of coral cover in the USVI were bleached to stark white. The reefs around St. John and St. Thomas were able to rebound faster due to the abundance of fish species, like parrotfish, that made them less likely to develop macroalgae and cyanobacteria.
  • A lot of fish species in the USVI are overfished, and because the "no-take" areas and protected species regulations are fairly new, enough time hasn't passed for the fish species to completely rebuild. One recommendation is to promote the harvest of the Indo-Pacific Lionfish which is a vicious consumer of young fish.
  • Terrestrial sediment runoff is another one of the main threats to the corals close to shore in the US Virgin Islands. These silt and clay particles have negative effects on the reefs and can lead to bleaching, disease, and mortality. [7]

The Virgin Island National Park

The Virgin Island National Park is another active participant in the US Virgin Islands monitoring of coral reefs. They play a part by monitoring air quality, marker buoy instillations, and ongoing research on coral disease, sedimentation rates, fishery population biology, and watershed delineation.

Objectives: The National Park aims to protect and sustain the coral reefs of the Virgin Islands. It is also designed to monitor certain aspects of the reef and surrounding ecosystems. In addition, it aims to provide information on coral reef status to policymakers, the public, and the National Park Service in order to improve the conditions of the reefs and other areas targeted by the National Park. [8]

Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument


  • One of the main accomplishments of the National Park is the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. This is a protected area of coral reef that the park enforces restrictions and laws against anchoring on/near the reef, as well as making sure that visitors to the reef abide by the "no fishing" laws and the "no-take zones."
  • Another accomplishment of the park is the 16 Water Monitoring Sites around St. John where they sample the sites every three months to monitor clarity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, salt content, light transmittance, and pH levels. They then take this information and use it as they research to find better methods to protect the reefs.
  • "No-Take Zones" also gave rise by the Virgin Island National Park in 2001. This made it illegal to take any sort of coral, fish, or object from within the Coral Reef National Monument.
  • Air quality monitoring is another way that the park is actively partaking in coral reef management. By obtaining data on the air quality they are able to predict when there might be a threat to the reef as well as learn more about ways to reduce certain stressors that may harm the reefs in the future.
  • Finally, the park initiates ongoing research on coral disease, sedimentation rates, and fishery population that will aid in education and prevention for the future of our reefs.
  • Mooring Buoy and Marker Buoy Installation are additional tools that they use in order to signal safe places to anchor boats in the bays around the islands.
  • They also work closely to educate the visitors to the parks and reefs to ensure that they are aware of simple rules to follow in order to protect the reefs, as well as including various signs and posters throughout the parks that advertise a few basic rules to follow when snorkeling and swimming near the reefs.

A Few Key Points:

  • Coral reef ecosystems face threats due to natural disturbances (hurricanes), boat groundings, and careless anchoring.
  • Coral diseases sometimes appear in reefs around the US Virgin Islands, and the park works to monitor these.
  • Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument rated in "fair" condition in the most recent study conducted on the reef.
  • Two of the most important herbivorous fish (parrot fish and surgeonfish) face strong fishing pressure, but are protected from commercial fishing by the park.
  • In 2006, two coral types (Staghorn and Elkhorn) were placed on the Endangered Species list as "threatened" due to hurricanes and boat groundings.
  • Black band disease and white band disease are both at fault for loss of coral cover in the area.
  • Episodes of bleaching have occurred in 1987, 1990, 1998, 2005, and 2010.
  • Runoff from land development on St. John is one of the biggest threats to the reefs.
  • Sea turtle mortality has increased on St. John over the past few years due to boating accidents.
  • Due to a lack of funds, the park can only do but so much to protect the reefs and conduct research. [9]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wilkinson, Clive, Alison Green, Jeanine Almany, and Shannon Dionne. "Monitoring Coral Reef Marine Protected Areas." International Union for Conservation of Nature. Australian Institute of Marine Science and the IUCN Marine Program, 4 Nov. 2003. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  2. Smith, T. B., et al. "Assessing Coral Reef Health Across Onshore to Offshore Stress Gradients in the US Virgin Islands." Marine pollution bulletin 56.12 (2008): 1983-91. ProQuest. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Hill, Jos, and Clive Wilkinson. "Methods for Ecological Monitoring of Coral Reefs." International Union for Conservation of Nature. Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2004. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  4. Brainard, Russell. Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Report for American Samoa, 2002-2006. Silver Spring, Md.: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, 2008. Print.
  5. "The United States Virgin Islands Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program: Southeast Regional Office." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  6. "The United States Virgin Islands Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  7. Smith TB, Kadison E, Henderson L, Brandt ME, Gyory J, Kammann M, Wright V, Nemeth RS (2011). The United States Virgin Islands Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program. Year 11Annual Report. Version 1 243 pp.
  8. "Virgin Islands National Park (U.S. National Park Service)." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  9. "State of the Parks." National Parks Conservation Association, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
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