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Establishing Baselines for Fiji’s Coral Reefs

Coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet 25% of all marine life call coral reefs home. But, their homes are being threatened. The oceans have been dramatically changing and this change is often going unnoticed. With the recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urging governments and individuals to take action now to reduce the effects of climate change, it has become even more critical for us to start monitoring and changing the way we affect aquatic environments.

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By Amanda White

Photo Credits: Rob Wilson, Frontline Photography for Project Baseline

Coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet 25% of all marine life call coral reefs home. But, their homes are being threatened. The oceans have been dramatically changing and this change is often going unnoticed. With the recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urging governments and individuals to take action now to reduce the effects of climate change, it has become even more critical for us to start monitoring and changing the way we affect aquatic environments.

Over the past four years, Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) conservation initiative, Project Baseline, has been collaborating with scientific and government entities around the globe to provide data on critical environments using divers and submersibles. Last year, GUE sent a team of divers, scientists, and volunteers to Fiji to explore and establish baseline conditions for several of the world’s healthiest remaining coral reefs.

“It is our responsibility and certainly our mission as Project Baseline, to get out there and document these reefs in order to understand what is here and to present that, not only to scientists, but also to local people and to the world to encourage them to care more about what is here and to try harder to protect it,” Project Baseline Director Dr. Todd Kincaid said.

The mission in Fiji took place over fourteen days onboard the private motor yacht m/y Ad-Vantage, which was donated for use by the project along with its submersible Moby, to collect data on the health of deep and shallow Fijian coral reef ecosystems at ten different locations.  

Dr. Brian Walker and Dr. Ciro Rico photographed coral populations during 16 open circuit dives. Some of the images from the different sites they visited can be seen on Project Baseline’s database. 

The Diving

For the Fiji mission, Project Baseline partnered with Dr. Ciro Rico from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and Dr. Brian Walker and Dr. Charles Messing from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Drs. Walker and Rico were able to complete 16 open circuit dives to conduct detailed documentation of specific coral colonies at depths between 12 and 20 meters.The GUE technical dive team, made up of Mel Jeavons, Jamie Obern, Martin McClellan, and Kincaid, conducted three plus hour-long dives where they collected fifty-five 50-meter long video transects at depths of 30, 20, and 10 meters.

Ad-Vantage’s submersible pilots also conducted 12 video transect dives. The dives were made at the same or nearly the same locations as the dive teams but between the depths of 50 and 362 meters. The primary mission of the submersible dives was to collect vertical video transects of benthic conditions across the steepest portions of the slopes. In addition, Dr. Messing was able to go on eight submersible dives during which he documented deep benthic life forms and collected 29 physical samples. The samples were later preserved and delivered to USP to be added to their South Pacific archives.

“One of the things we did find is that as we ascended from deep water of 300-400 meters, life got more abundant and diverse as we reached the top of the deep reef wall,” Dr. Messing said. “There were also some interesting parallels with the Bahamas where I have dived before. Because both of these environments are limestone, we saw some of the same basic geological structures, and organisms used some of the same adaptations as those on the opposite side of the world, which I found really interesting.”

The team of rebreather divers was responsible for taking video transects of both the benthic and the fish life at varying depths. The footage is then shared with scientists and students. The footage from this trip will help one student develop his thesis. Pictured here are GUE divers Mel Jeavons, Jamie Obern, and Martin McClellan.

Reaching Out to Villages

Project Baseline missions are not limited to just science or diving, but also include public outreach. The Fijians rely on the ocean to live. Their food and their economy depend on the health of the coral reefs that surround the islands and their livelihoods are threatened by a lack of understanding and adequate protections.

To combat this threat, Project Baseline reached out to Fijian villages that were near the dive locations in order to share what is happening beneath the waves with the people it matters to the most.

We met with village leaders and invited them aboard the m/y Ad-Vantage and for tours of the ship and the sub, as well as an overview of our mission and its relevance to our efforts to protect and sustain their ties to the sea. We also met with and described our mission to municipality leaders in Vunisea and representatives of Fiji’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.  Project Baseline hopes that by sharing what is happening underwater with the people of Fiji, they will take the first steps in managing how the reefs will be impacted in the future.

One of the most important elements to the mission in Fiji was to share what we were doing with the Fijian Villages near the sites we were diving. Here, Dr. Todd Kincaid is explaining our mission objectives to one of the chiefs.

Results

The good news? There is still a cause for hope.

“The reefs that we have monitored so far are in relatively good health compared to other sites of the world,” Dr. Rico said. “And in particular to see that the Astrolabe Reef is pretty much a pristine ecosystem. I think it’s a model of healthy coral ecosystems, and it is obvious that the remoteness of the place and the fact that it is far from human settlement is an important difference.”

Not all of the locations we were able to dive were as healthy as the Great Astrolabe Reef. Signs of distress and disease were present on the reefs that were closer to populated islands.

“In the areas that we have visited on this trip, we haven’t seen evidence of mass bleaching,” Dr. Walker said. “We have seen some disease. There were low levels of disease at most sites. At sites closer to human populations we saw an increase in dead coral and cyanobacteria blooms and other indicators that they are probably being impacted by their locations.”

The reason for the diseased and dead coral is still being examined. However, all indicators point toward stresses from local unsustainable land uses – pollution and overfishing – rather than global warming or climate change. If there is a silver lining, it is that these are impacts that can be quickly and effectively countered through public engagement and an investment in sustainable practices. The effects go beyond just the health of the coral. Jeavons and Obern were a part of a previous study collecting video transects on Fijian Coral reefs and they noticed some differences since the last time they visited the islands

“You can see the commercial fishing pressure on the reefs. I remember when we were here 20 years ago there were a lot more of the big predators. A lot more grouper, a lot more snapper and they’ve just gone,” Obern, a GUE instructor from New Zealand said. “If you haven’t collected the data and you can’t give something that’s measurable, definitive to prove to people that it is gone, then it is just in my memory. To come back here and get more baseline data so we can say, no this is what’s happening going forward, is really important.”

Onboard the m/y AdVantage, scientists from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji were collecting specimen during the submersible and scuba dives. Here, Dr. Charles Messing from Nova and a masters student from USP preserve pieces of coral and sea fans to study after the mission was completed.

About Project Baseline

GUE’s Project Baseline initiative started in 2009, is at the forefront of data collection efforts by citizen scientist divers around the world. With over 100 projects in 38 countries, the initiative is more than just the Global Missions you may have read about. Our volunteer divers have collected over 2,700 images, 46,000 temperature readings, and almost 4,000 visibility measurements, all of which are visible on our public database.

Top Image: Working with the m/y Advantage’s submersible named Moby, our dive teams can help accomplish scientists’ goals outside of the reach of a  mechanical arm. The submersible during this trip carried scientists down the sides of the reef walls. Divers in this image are Dr. Todd Kincaid, Mel Jeavons,  and Martin McClellan. Inside the sub is sub pilot Berry McGowan, Dr. Charles Messing, and Ginnie Kincaid.

Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.



Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Community

Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA

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By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor

Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey. 

Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever. 

Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.

Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor. 

Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.  

Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor. 

Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage. 

The Founding of Ghost Diving

Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations. 

Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net. 

Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible. 

Launching Ghost Diving USA

Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net. 

Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality. 

The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that. 

For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers. 

Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at info@ghostdivingusa.org

You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.

Photo by Sean Farkas

Additional Resources

Ghost Diving International:https://ghostdiving.org
Aquafil:https://www.aquafil.com
Bracenet:https://bracenet.net/en
Healthy Seas:https://www.healthyseas.org
Alert Diver:Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).


Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends. 

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