Reef Watch: Empowering citizens to monitor Bermuda's reefs and fishes

Bermuda’s coral reefs are vital to the persistence of our economy and wellbeing. Living coral reefs act as a self-healing protective sea wall, blocking storm waves from destroying our fragile limestone shoreline and the coastal infrastructure we built along its edge. Our tourism industry relies on the beauty and charisma of our island; contributed substantially by the many recreational and aesthetic opportunities provided by the coral reefs around us. An economic evaluation of the lagoonal reef, which represents half of the entire reef system, found that $750,000,000 to $1,250,000,000 are contributed to Bermuda’s economy annually by the reefs of Bermuda. It is strongly in our interests to ensure that the coral reef system that protects and sustains our lives is itself protected from the extensive harm that can be caused by bad human behaviour such as overfishing, dredging, shipping traffic and the global environmental threats of climate change and ocean acidification.

Creole wrasse flit over a healthy coral reef in the North Lagoon.
[click photo to enlarge]
 Not only are our reefs critical to our survival, they are also extremely fragile. Coral reefs around the world have been in decline since the 1980s. Bermuda is literally one of three coral reefs left in good shape in the Caribbean, and the other two are now showing signs of decline.

On the left is a healthy South Shore reef. On the right is an
unhealthy reef in Bermuda located near a shallow polluted bay.
Notice that the healthy reef has lots of structure and holes
for fish to hide in, while the unhealthy reef is very flat
and covered in algae, and with few places for fish to live.
[click photo to enlarge]

Bermuda’s coral reef ecosystem covers an expanse of 750 sq. km. Despite this substantial extent, monitoring of coral reef status and fish abundance used to only be assessed at a small number of isolated locations, primarily at the east end of the island. It is impossible to manage a large complex system like our coral reef when we have no idea of neither its baseline state nor its continuing status through time.

In order to directly address the lack of information about the state of our coral reefs and associated marine ecosystems, I started the Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme in 2004. Since then my team of Bermudian and international scientists and I have mapped and quantified the distribution and ecological condition of coral reefs, seagrass beds and other marine habitats across the entire Bermuda reef platform from the shore to a depth of 130ft. The data collected by BREAM is unique, in providing not only the only accurate map of the distribution of reefs as both submerged rocks and as critical habitat, but also in providing the much-needed baseline by which future resource management and conservation action can be guided and assessed for success.
By surveying reef sites across the entire Bermuda reef platform,
BREAM can determine the distribution of healthy and unhealthy
reefs - the first step in managing impacts and restoring
damaged areas. We also have assessed fish populations at all 180 sites.
[click map to enlarge]

Moving forward it is vital that Bermuda’s fishes and marine habitats are continually monitored for ecological health. It is also of extreme importance that we make Bermudians aware of both the vitality of Bermuda’s reef system, and its extreme fragility. The best way to do so is to empower Bermudians to be able to accurately assess the condition of coral reefs and fishes themselves, so they are no longer solely reliant upon research scientists nor the government to provide the reef health information that so directly affects all of our lives.

Together we can build a growing movement of interested citizen scientists who look after our favourite playground, striving toward a clean, healthy and abundant ocean. 

For Reef Watch, my BREAM team have developed an inexpensive, simple, non-invasive method for the monitoring of fish species and assessment of coral health. Fish sightings can be recorded directly on the REEF WATCH slate that has been specifically designed for underwater use and includes a colour guide to the target fish species.

A map of the 53 sites we will help Reef Watch citizen scientists
survey for fish and reef health.
[click map to enlarge]

All submitted data will be made available on the BZS website ( ) and from this  BREAM Blog (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Analysis and Monitoring Programme My team of Bermudian reef scientists will evaluate the volunteer results and compare the health metrics from their reef surveys with our past BREAM data from each reef site; making it possible to compare many different reefs at any one point in time, as well as a single reef over time.

Stay tuned to the Reef Watch page [here], and watch the BREAM blog for more updates after Cup Match on how to join the Reef Watch team of ocean scientists . Together we can protect the reefs and fishes, so they can keep our island beautiful and safe.

Dr. Thaddeus Murdoch
Chief Scientist - BREAM
tmurdoch [at]


Anonymous said…
There seems to be some overlap here between REEF who have been conducting surveys in Bermuda of fish (3000 plus to date) and this initiative. Are the surveys of each going to be integrated or are we really trying to reinvent the wheel here?
Rachelle said…
This is gorgeous!
Anon - We are not reinventing the wheel. BREAM uses the REEF survey protocol at all of its sites as part of the comprehensive assessments we do. We have contributed over 180 sites to the online surveys of Bermuda at Judie Clee, the head of REEF in Bermuda has worked with BREAM since 2004.

ReefWatch is different, in that we also teach how to survey reef health, and we have our teams survey specific reefs located across the lagoon. In REEF people surveyed where they wanted or could reach, which meant all the pretty reefs offshore and all the close reefs along the shore were surveyed, but all the reefs in the middle of the lagoon were not generally surveyed with REEF.

Thanks for your comments - Dr. Murdoch

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