A multi-national approach for the standardization of data and reporting in long-term monitoring programs across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico Large Marine Ecosystems

Principal Investigator

Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. An underwater kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and marine life, they offer stunning views for snorkelers and SCUBA divers. Their value extends far beyond their beauty, however. Coral reefs provide habitat for thousands of marine species, catering to both predator and prey. They provide coastal communities with storm protection and economic benefits through tourism dollars.

It is imperative to keep these ecosystems healthy, but how do we know if coral reefs are thriving or struggling? HRI is teaming up with experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Miami, and Unidad Multidisciplinaria de Docenia e Investigacion-Sisal, and Kalanbio A.C. to find out and develop a Gulf of Mexico Coral Reef Report Card.

Working together, HRI and its team of partner organizations propose a multinational approach to streamline long-term monitoring capabilities and reporting methods across Gulf and Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystems (or LMEs), starting with coral reefs. The purpose of the project is to bring together scientists studying coral reefs in the U.S., Mexico, and Caribbean and train them on the same monitoring capabilities and reporting methods. In order to capture a true health assessment of coral reefs Gulf-wide, the methods involved in data sampling and reporting must be consistent among scientists.

About 30 scientists from the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean will gather in Mérida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán, to participate in a week-long workshop consisting of meetings and in-depth trainings on methods developed by NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP).

Originally scheduled for October 2020, the event has now been postponed to October 2021, or potentially later, due to unforeseen interference related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the all-clear is sounded for the scientists involved to travel internationally, the initial three days of the workshop will focus on the science behind the methods, protocols, logistics, database structure, and capacity needs for the effort. It will also include an in-water training exercise to demonstrate the methods in action.

To close the workshop, a group of participants will travel offshore, north of Mérida, to dive the pristine Alacranes Reef or “Scorpion Reef.” Spanning about 17 miles long and 13 miles wide, it is the largest reef in the southern Gulf of Mexico. The four-day trip will provide experiential hands-on opportunities for the participating scientists to apply their NCRMP methods training in the field. The group will also evaluate the possibility of Alacranes Reef serving as a reference site for the Greater Caribbean, meaning data collected at other reefs throughout the region in the future would be compared to that of Alacranes Reef.

When the workshop concludes, scientists will return to their home countries to incorporate the NCRMP methods into their own research. They won’t keep what they’ve learned to themselves though. Instead, these scientists will share the NCRMP methods and procedures with fellow marine researchers so that coral reef monitoring is standardized across the Gulf of Mexico and Greater Caribbean.

Armed with the NCRMP sampling and assessment methods, HRI and its partners plan to re-evaluate Gulf reefs every two years. Trends revealed in this long-term data will help us answer the question “How healthy are the Gulf’s coral reefs?” and help us better identify those reefs in need of further research and restoration.