Surveying California’s Rocky Reefs

California’s rocky reefs support diverse communities of marine wildlife and plants. For example, kelp beds found in these reefs attract commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, scientists, and kelp harvesters. Heavy fishing and pollution, however, have reduced the abundance of sea life in these reefs. Restoring and conserving them will require, among other things, accurate information. Yet the resources for collecting such information are scarce.

The California Coastal and Marine Initiative (CCMI) seeks to promote the recovery and conservation of marine ecosystems—including reefs and kelp beds—through a strategy that supports practical science, inspiring Californians to care about the state’s offshore living treasures.

Beginning in 2005, CCMI teamed up with Reef Check to advance both strategies by applying a volunteer diver reef survey program developed for tropical coral reefs to California’s rocky reefs. Working closely with university scientists, Reef Check developed a rigorous protocol for collecting information on rocky-reef plants and animals. With CCMI’s assistance, Reef Check also developed a memorandum of understanding with the California Department of Fish and Game, under which the two organizations will collaborate on surveys and management of resulting data.

Since 2005, Reef Check has trained several hundred divers to conduct scientific surveys of more than 60 rocky reefs off the California coast. For some reefs, these data are the only systematic information available. In addition, Reef Check divers—volunteers who may work as doctors, carpenters, or elementary school teachers in their everyday lives—have become eloquent and informed supporters of science-based conservation.

With CCMI funding and organizational assistance, Reef Check has become a credible, volunteer-based program generating valuable information for resource managers regarding California’s nearshore marine ecosystems. At the same time, it is producing a cohort of inspired citizens with first-hand knowledge of these rich and fragile areas.