Multi-level comparisons of the health
of coral reefs are effective tools to help establish and manage
protected areas. Certainly a key criterion for establishing a
reef-protected area or a monitoring site is relative health determined
by a survey of candidates. Similar comparisons find special use in
convincing governments, stakeholders and the public of a proposed
action. The spatial range of health assessments extends from the scale
of a few nearby reefs to that of a region. Its credibility depends on
sampling strategy used to select candidate sites and the use of a
standard protocol applied by trained professionals.
The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Rapid
Reef Assessment Project (AGRRA) is an example of the kind of multi-level
health assessment, which is a useful planning and management tool.
This international collaboration, established in 1998, was designed to
provide an initial health assessment of reefs throughout the Western
Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. It relies on a well-tested protocol,
which is based on direct examination by experienced divers of the coral,
fish and algal communities (http://www.agrra.org/).
Since June 1998, some 26 large-scale
AGRRA assessments of reef areas have been completed in the Bahamas (3
areas), Belize, Bonaire, Brazil, Cayman Islands (2) Costa Rica, Cuba’s
south and north coasts (3), Curacao, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico (4),
Netherlands Antilles, St. Vincent, Turks and Caicos Islands, U.S. Virgin
Islands, U.S. Flower Gardens, Venezuela and Panama’s Caribbean coast.
The data from over 600 reefs sites has all been entered into an Access
Database. Norms of some 30 attributes can be extracted from this
Database on various spatial scales – a series of similar nearby reefs;
a larger geographical sub-region; the major regions; and the entire
province. In this way, it is possible, for example, to compare the
health of an individual reef site with its peer sites or to show that
the fish populations around an island are seriously depleted relative to
other comparable fringing reef areas.
Conducting AGRRA health
assessments in so many different countries required the involvement of
in-country participants. This need was a special opportunity to train
those collaborators in the AGRRA Protocol. To date, training workshops
of from 3-5 days have been held in Miami, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef,
Jamaica, Bonaire and Panama. A total of some 90 persons have
participated in these training workshops. Cuba, has adopted the AGRRA
Protocol as its national method of reef assessment and monitoring.
Jamaica used the Protocol to make additional health assessments
following the Training Workshop. Most recently, four young biologists
of the indigenous Kuna Indians of Panama learned the Protocol. The
value of the AGRRA Project is it practicality and widespread appeal to
both reef scientists and managers.