What is the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment?
The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA) Program is an international collaboration of scientists and mangers aimed at determining the regional condition of reefs in the Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
As part of this assessment they train groups of individuals to identify fish and corals and make regular assessments of the reefs in their areas. I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in one of their 5 day training sessions for Fish Surveys. The session was taken by the legendary Ken Marks.
The morning started with a classroom session where we discussed the history and purpose of AGRRA. We also did a small Fish ID test and we discussed different fish recording website called reef.org (more about that in another post). After lunch we then headed to Stuart Cove’s where we did a check dive to make sure that we were all comfortable in the water. Of the nine of us who were diving we were made up of 4 instructors, 1 divemaster, 1 rescue diver, and 3 regular divers – it seemed a bit overkill to check that all of us could dive but it meant that we got to go for a bimble around the James Bond Wrecks. Though we did practice some basic skills such as: mask flood and clear, out-of-air, neutral buoyancy, and hovering. Once we returned to the dock we constructed the tools that we would need to do the survey. More about how to use it later.
We again started with another classroom session. This time it was straight onto learning how to identify the different fish that make up the survey. AGRRA doesn’t collect data on all the fish in the reef. Only certain specific fish make up the survey. You can download a powerpoint here, that shows all the fish in their survey. This took us up until lunch time. It was a lot of learning and the parrotfish are really tough to distinguish, but most of us had it cracked by the end of the session. We then headed back to Stuart Cove’s and jumped on the boat for a practice at identifying fish. It seemed like it was going to be a problem dive as one mask was smashed by a falling tank before we even arrived at Palace Wall and I lost my mask (but it was recovered) as I entered the water. That was the first time that had ever happened to me, I think it is because I like to wear my mask loose. So armed with slates, a pencil and a list of all the fish that would be required for the survey we started hunting them out. It was actually a lot of fun trying to figure out if it was a striped parrotfish or a princess parrotfish, doctorfish or ocean surgeonfish, sheepshead porgy or pluma porgy. When we got back on the boat we were all a chatter about what we have seen. At the dock Ken Marks, our AGRRA instructor, debriefed us and talked about the fish we had seen.
Day three started with another morning classroom session were we discussed what we were going to do for the day and we did some more Fish ID. After lunch we then headed out on the boat and started doing our first transects. The information for each transect was recorded on a slide (like that shown below). The slide had the most common fish to the area, that means that you have to add any that you see that aren’t on there – such as the Queen Parrotfish or the White Grunt. The idea is to swim along using the T-bar to help you size the fish and then you note the types on the slate, all the while letting out the tape measure so that you measure a distance of 30m (100ft). You are only to note the fish that appear 2 metres in front of you and a metre either side of the T-bar.
We started this day with the dives in the morning. The plan was to do two dives and at least 3 transects on each dive. This time to include the differences in height at set points along the transect (15, 30, 45, 60, 75, 90 feet). This is done on the return journey after you have completed the fish survey part. The most annoying this is that there always seems to be more fish on the return journey than on the outward journey. After lunch we had a classroom session showing us how to enter the data from the transects.
Final day of the course. Two morning dives with the first at Nari Nari, the site of the BREEF Coral Reef Statue Garden, the second at Pumpkin Patch. Here we continued practising our transects with Ken Marks supervising our skills and giving us helpful bits of information/advice on how to do it better. After a long lunch we settled down in the classroom for the final Fish ID exam. We all improved from our beginning scores, and some of us even managed to get 100%.
I have to say that this has been one of the most enjoyable courses that I have been on. I am proud to be certified as an AGRAA Coral Reef Fish Surveyor. Collecting data that will be used by scientists to assess the state of our reefs is a great idea. I plan to get all my students involved. Hopefully we should have some of the most well surveyed reefs in the Caribbean. So who wants to do their Fish Identification Speciality?