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SAEON participates in global volunteer reef ecology monitoring programme

By Dr Anthony Bernard, SAEON Elwandle Node

The Reef Life Survey (RLS), a volunteer-based reef ecology monitoring programme, began in Australia at the end of 2007 under the guidance of Professor Graham Edgar from the University of Tasmania.

Since its early beginnings, the RLS has grown rapidly with the support of passionate researchers, students and volunteers, and is now incorporated as the primary activity within the Reef Life Survey Foundation, a non-profit Australian organisation.

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An image from the Reef Life Survey dives conducted at Caldeira Island in northern Mozambique. (Picture: Anthony Bernard)



An image from the Reef Life Survey dives conducted around New Zealand’s North Island. (Picture: Peter Southwood)

Black-faced cormorants settle down for the night at Maria Island, where the RLS Global Analysis workshop took place. (Picture: Anthony Bernard)

The RLS programme consists of a network of recreational SCUBA divers and an advisory committee made up of managers, scientists and recreational diver representatives, that identify the direct needs for the data collected. The programme focuses on biodiversity conservation and the sustainable management of marine resources through the collection of high-quality biodiversity information.

Long-term monitoring

Long-term monitoring is a costly endeavour, and these high costs often lead to compromises in the data quality, spatial coverage and longevity of long-term monitoring programmes. By using volunteers, the RLS overcomes some financial constraints, allowing data to be collected at spatial and temporal scales beyond those possible by scientific dive teams.

This has allowed the RLS programme to expand globally, with volunteers collecting data from 1 846 sites distributed over 42 countries, with a total fish count of just under 5.5 million individuals from 2 518 species (as of October 2012).

South African participation

South Africa is represented in this global network, with volunteers from the Southern Underwater Research Group (SURG) and the SAEON Elwandle Node collecting RLS data from South Africa and Mozambique. Through this participation, Peter Southwood (from SURG) was invited to collect data from within and adjacent to the marine protected areas (MPAs) on the north coast of New Zealand’s North Island.


View of Maria Island looking up towards the Bishop and Clerk on the north-east point of the island.


First Global Analysis workshop

The SAEON researchers participating in the RLS programme were, in turn, invited to the first RLS Global Analysis workshop dedicated to formulating and writing papers based on the RLS dataset. The workshop was held on Maria Island1 off the east coast of Tasmania, Australia. The event, hosted by the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), was attended by researchers from 16 countries from around the world. Although the island has no mains electricity, RLS managed to set up a fully functioning solar powered communal office with fast and efficient data management and sharing facilities.

Using the RLS programme and dataset as the catalyst, the workshop set out to (i) develop a global network of field researchers who are actively researching reef systems, (ii) discuss potential funding possibilities for future global reef analyses, (iii) increase the awareness of breadth, composition and value of the RLS dataset and (iv) draft papers using the RLS dataset, with emphasis on global analyses of marine conservation, the effects of fishing, biogeography, macro-ecology and ecological relationships.

The workshop consisted of two phases, with the first week allocated to intensive data processing and analysis, and the second to networking and exploring the natural environment on and around Maria Island.


View from Bishop and Clerk looking down over Maria Island, Darlington town, and across the Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.


Impressive dataset

The first phase saw groups of scientists breaking away to address and develop questions that they were specifically interested in. The impressive RLS dataset covered the abundance and biomass of fish, invertebrate and algal communities from 11 oceanic realms and 74 ecoregions from both hemispheres.

The quantity of data to work with, and the analytical opportunities that it presented, ensured that the teams remained focused until late at night, and the intense silences as people processed and analysed data were only broken by the anguished cries when the data volume caused operating systems to crash. Although many of the research outputs are still in preparation, initial results from the workshop have begun to reveal interesting patterns in the parameters that enhance the functioning of MPAs, the indirect effects of fishing and protection, and patterns in biodiversity.

The second week of the workshop provided time for more general discussions between attendees, and outings to see the terrestrial and marine environments. This allowed for some close encounters with the distinctively Australian fauna including wombats, eastern grey kangaroos and the notorious Tasmanian devil.

Overall the first RLS Global Analysis workshop was a great success, bringing together researchers from different backgrounds to work on shared interests and develop new ecological questions and networks. The RLS programme is on-going and data from around the world will continue to be collected and added to the database. This will enable future workshops to begin to investigate temporal patterns in reef ecosystems alongside the global spatial trends.

1 Maria Island is a small, and somewhat isolated island with a rich history, being used by the Aboriginal people of the area, as a convict settlement, and later for industry and farming. Nowadays Maria Island is a national park, proclaimed in 1972, with an MPA on the island’s north-west coast proclaimed in 1991. The park makes use of the historic buildings, with the convict penitentiary adapted to accommodate visitors.

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