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BULLETIN OP MARINE SCIENCE, 32(1): 269-276, 1982

CORAL REEP PAPER

A CRITIQUE OF THE VISUAL CENSUS METHOD FOR ASSESSING CORAL REEF FISH POPULATIONS Richard E. Brock
ABSTRACT
Many investigators have noted that estimates of coral reef fish populations by visual census are biased but its precision has never been quantitatively determined. It is still used, however, because this technique is usually assumed to be the best non-destructive method of population assessment. This study compares the results of visual censuses conducted on an isolated 1,500 m2 patch reef to the collection of all fishes made subsequently with rotenone on that reef. The visual censuses missed the presence or underestimated abundance of cryptic fish species. Diurnally active species were reasonably well censused, but the most common were often underestimated. Thus comparisons between fish communities based on visual census data should be restricted to the diurnally exposed species.

Visual recognition and tallying of species and numbers underwater is one of the few non-destructive methods presently available to assess coral reef fish communities. Since the first serious attempt to estimate reef fish populations using the visual census technique (Brock, 1954), several studies of coral reef fishes have used the procedure. In these studies, authors have acknowledged the pitfalls and shortcomings of the method. Obvious errors include problems in species identification, and in counting and estimating size of fishes seen. Additionally, the observer cannot accurately assess the species composition and abundance of cryptic fishes particularly in areas of high topographical relief. This study attempts to specify these biases by comparison of visual census data with that from a quantitative collection of fish from the same area.
MATERIALS AND METHODS

This study was conducted on an isolated patch reef in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii. Kaneohe Bay is fronted by a barrier reef behind which is a lagoon with small patch reefs. The patch reef selected for this investigation is cone-shaped with a flattened top which lies about 30 em below the surface at low tide. The reef top is roughly circular with a diameter of approximately 25 m and is located in ]4 m of water surrounded by a mud substratum. The reef is relatively isolated; the nearest other reef is over 130 m away. Substratum on both the middle of the top and lower sides of the patch reef is rubble; live corals are restricted to the upper 5 m of the slope and crest of the reef. The lower slopes provide little shelter for larger fishes. Most of the fishes resident on this reef are usually seen on the upper slopes adjacent to available cover. As part of a study on colonization patterns of marine fishes, this patch reef was depopulated of its fishes in October ]977 (Brock et aI., ]979). On the afternoon prior to the removal of the fishes, a number of visual fish transects were conducted using SCUBA in the vicinity of the upper reef slope and crest to inventory the fish species and obtain an estimate of numbers of each species present. All fish encountered on three 20 x 4 m transects were identified and tallied; this was followed by a careful search encompassing the entire reef in compiling a list of all species. On the following morning the reef was quickly encircled by a large] 1 x ]50 m net (stretched mesh 2 cm) that extended from the surface to the 9 m contour. The net enclosed a planar area of 1,513 m2 It prevented the escape of larger fishes, After emplacement, 54.5 kg of 5% rotenone powder was mixed to a paste and spread over the entire enclosed area. As they died, fishes were picked up, taken to the laboratory, identified, weighed, and preserved, The entire field operation took 20 collectors about 6 h.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

In total, 53 species representing 21 families of fishes were visually censused on the study reef. On the following morning, 81 species from 29 families of fishes
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BULLETIN OF MARINE SCIENCE, VOL. 32, NO. I. 1982

Table I. Comparative list of fish species visually censused (indicated by "x") to those removed by rotenone from the experimental reef a day later (October, 1977). Numbers of individuals are given for the rotenone collection. On the far right each species is described as either a wanderer (W) or resident (R) and as being either diurnal]y cryptic (C) or exposed (E)
Rotenone

Family and Species

Visual Census

Collection No.

Species Habits

Dussumieriidae Etrumeus micropus Synodontidae Saurida gracilis Synodus variegatus Muraenidae Uropterygius tigrinus U. fuscogutta/us Anarchias /eucurus Echidna zebra E. po/yzona
Gymnothorax eurostus x x

WE

23
I

RC RC

2
4

RC

RC
RC

7
6
I

RC
RC

G. steindachneri G. flavimarginatus G. javanicus G. meleagris G. undula/us G. gracilicaudus G. buroensis Gymno/horax sp. Congridae Conger cinereus Aulostomidae Aulostomus chinensis

19 I 3
]

RC
RC
RC

RC

x x

RC
RC RC

]64
I 1 1

RC
RC

x x

RC RE
RC

24
2

Syngnathidae Doryrhamphus melanop/eura Holocentridae Adioryx lacteoguttatus A. diadema Bothidae Bo/hus mancus Pleuronectidae Samariscus /riocella/us Priacanthidae Priacanthus cruen/a/us Apogonidae Foa brachygramma Apogon erythrinus A. snyderi Carangidae Caranx me/ampygus Mullidae Mulloidich/hys flavolineatus M. vanico/ensis Parupeneus porphyreus P. multifascia/us x x x x x
x x

2
3

RC RC RC

RC

7 ],090
3 123

RC
RC RC RC

I]

WE RE

12

9
2 2

RE
RE RE

BROCK: ASSESSING CORAL REEF FISH POPULATIONS

271

Table I.

Continued
Rotenone

Family and Species

Visual Census

Collection No.

Species Habits

Chaetodontidae Chaetodon auriga C. /unu/a C. ornatissimus C. miliaris Heniochus acuminatus Pomacentridae Dascyl/us a/bisel/a Abudefduf abdominalis Chromis hanui C. ova/is P/ectrog/yphidodon johnstonianus Eupomacentrus fascio/atus Labridae Bodianus bi/unu/mus Cheilinus rhodochrous Tha/assoma duperryi T. ba/lieui Gomphosus varius Stethojulis ba/teata Macropharyngodon geoffroyi Scaridae Scarus perspici/latus S. sordidus S. taeniurus Scarus spp. (juveniles) Ca/otomus sandvicensis Scarops rubrovio/aceus Zanclidae Zane/us canescens Acanthuridae Acanthurus nigrofuscus A. triostegus sandvicensis A. xanthopterus Ctenochaetus strigosus Zebrasoma fiavescens Z. ve/iferum Naso unicorn is Eleotridae Asterropteryx semipunctatus

x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

5
I

421
I

RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE WE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RE RC RC RC RC RC RE RE RC

99 666 2 7
I

44 5 4 67 25 6 3 19 142 40 344

3
2

7 4 15 54 5
I

988 6 5 7 4
I

Gobiidae Bathygobius cotticeps B. fuscus Gnatho/epis sp. Gobiidae sp. A Gobiidae sp. B Blennidae Cirripectus vari%sus /stib/ennius zebra Brotulidae Brotu/a mu/tibarbata

2 4 4

272
Table I, Continued

BULLETIN OF MARINE SCIENCE, VOL. 32, NO. I, 1982

Rotenone

Family and Species

Visual Census

Collection No.

Species Habits

Scorpaenidae Dendrochirus brachypterus Scorpaenopsis gibbosa S, cacopsis Scorpaena coniorta Monacanthidae Pervagor spilosorna Ostraciontidae Ostracion rne/eagris Canthigasteridae Canthigaster jactator Diodontidae Diodon hystr;x D. holocanthus Antennariidae Antennarius drornbus A. rno/uccensis Total no, of species Total no, of families

II

RE
RC RC RC

15
3 x

2
14

RE RE

15

RE WE
WE
RC RC

3 3

53

81

21

29

were taken in the collection with rotenone. These data are presented in Table 1. Sixty-five percent of the species collected had been seen in the visual census on the preceding day. In comparing the total number of species censused to those collected in the rotenone station the visual census provided a poor assessment of the species composition of the fish community. However, at the family level the method appears to be more accurate. In Table 1 is a subjective classification of how cryptic or exposed each fish species usually is (based on coloration and habits) as well as an estimate of the duration of residency on the patch reef. Species were considered to be either residents or wanderers; wandering species are defined as having no particular ties with any single reef area or having a home range whose boundaries encompassed an area much larger than the patch reef. Criteria for these judgments are based on the literature where information exists and on more than 20 years of observing Hawaiian fishes. Five species (Etrumeus micropus, Carnax melampygus, Scarops rubroviolaceus, Diodon hystrix and D. holocanthus) are considered to be wanderers; three of these species were seen in the visual census. Thirty-four species (42%) of the total collection are classed as being cryptic (Table 1). Only 9 (26%) of these fish species were seen in the visual assessment. In Table I, 43 species are classified as diurnally exposed residents. These species are listed in Table 2. Ninety-one percent (or 39 species) were enumerated in the visual survey. The number of individuals of each species counted in the three 20 x 4 m visual transects were summed and used to estimate total abundance for the entire 1,500 m2 patch reef area. This estimate and the actual number of each species removed on the following day are presented in Table 2 and plotted in Figure 1. The power function,

0.74X1.15

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273

Table 2. List of those species either censused (estimated number) and/or collected in the complete removal of all fishes (actual number) on the 1,500 m2 Kaneohe Bay experimental reef that have been classed as diurnally exposed resident species in Table I
Species Estimated No. Actual No.

Aulostomus chinensis MuJloidichthys jlavo/ineatus M. vanicolensis Parupeneus porphyreus P. multifasciatus Chaetodon auriga C.lunula C. ornatissimus C. miliaris Heniochus acuminatus Dascyllus albisella Abudefduf abdominaUs Chromis hanui C. ova/is Plectroglyphidodon johnstonianus Eupomacentrus fasciolatus Bodianus bilunulatus Cheilinus rhodochrous Thalassoma duperryi T. ballieui Gomphosus varius Stethojulis balteata Macropharyngodon geoffroyi Scarus perspiciJlatus S. sordidus S. taeniurus Scarus spp. (juveniles) Calotomus sandvicensis Zane/us canescens Acanthurus nigrofuscus A. triostegus sandvicensis A. xanthopterus Ctenochaetus strigosus Zebrasoma jlavescens Z. veliferum Naso unicornis Asterropteryx semipunctatus Cirripectus variolosus Istiblennius zebra Dendrochirus brachypterus Pervagor spilosoma Ostracion meleagris Canthigaster jactator

9 21 6
3 3 3 3 3

24 12 9

2 2 5

o
I 421 I

196
3 31

99
666 2 7
1

193

o
6

6
31

9
3 45 3

44 5 4
67

37
3 3

25 6
3 19 142

12 163

40
347

40
344

6
3

o
3 2
7

6
15

3
40
71

4
15 54

3 77 3

5
1

988
2 4
II

o
6
6

o
9

14
9

15

best describes the relationship between the number of individuals visually assessed (X) to the number removed (Y). The agreement between the number observed to the number collected (r2) is 82%. The results indicate that the technique provides a reasonable assessment of those fish species that are diurnally active and thus are exposed to the census taker. The power function relationship (Fig. 1) suggests that at higher abundances of a species within a transect area, the error associated with the visual estimate may be large. If true, the accuracy in the counts of individuals may possibly be increased by conducting a greater number of short (20-25 m) rather than a few

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OF MARINE SCIENCE, VOL. 32, NO. I, 1982

100

10


10 ESTIMATED Figure I. A logarithmic plot of the number of individuals of diurnally exposed reef fish species visually estimated (X) present on the study reef against the actual number removed (Y) using rotenone, The line of best fit is given by the equation, Y = Q,74X1.15 (r2 = Q,82), Data from Table 2. 100 1000

very long (100-200 m) transects. Short transects will census fewer individuals thus keeping errors on abundant species to a minimum. Usually long transects on coral reefs will sample a number of habitats (i.e., areas of rubble, coral, hard substratum, sand, etc.), whereas short lines may be kept within a particular habitat. However, criteria for transect length should also be dependent on the questions to be answered. The visual estimate of population size of the eleotrid Asterropteryx semipunctatus was 77 individuals, but 988 were taken in the rotenone collection (Table 2). This species provided the greatest disparity between estimated and actual numbers collected in Figure 1. It is probable that at any given time, large numbers of this small ubiquitous species are hidden, thus the visual estimates would be low. Cryptic species mayor may not be seen and counts of individuals of these species will be of little quantitative significance. Areas of high substratum relief provide greater shelter for cryptic fishes making enumeration still more difficult. Many of the cryptic and smaller species have more restricted home ranges or territories and often remain near a transect line than will or do larger species (Russell et al., 1978). Larger home ranging or territorial species as well as wanderers may leave the area of the transect or alternatively be attracted to the SCUBA diver (Chapman et al., 1974). These biases should be taken into account in any comparative study of reef fish abundance and community structure. Thus, the accuracy of the census results are, to a large degree, dependent on the pro-

BROCK: ASSESSING CORAL REEF FISH POPULATIONS

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ficiency of the investigator as well as his being knowledgeable about the behavior of the species present during censusing. The use of rotenone in conjunction with a net enclosing a study area is not always practical or desirable, a major objection being the elimination of the resident fish community. Rotenone is a non-selective agent causing asphyxiation of reef fishes. Many cryptic fishes, when poisoned by it, will leave their holes facilitating their collection (Randall, 1963a). The collection of fishes by rotenone has been discussed by Randall (1963b, c), Smith (1973), Goldman and Talbot (1976), and Russell et al. (1978). The destructive characteristics of the few more quantitative methods of coral reef fish assessment have led many investigators to use the visual census technique (e.g., Brock, 1954; Odum and Odum, 1955; Bardach, 1959; Clarke et aL, 1968; McVey, 1970; Risk, 1972; Key, 1973; McCain and Peck, 1973; Smith and Tyler, 1973; Hobson, 1974; Chave and Eckert, 1974; Itzkowitz, 1974; Jones and Chase, 1975; Nolan et aI., 1975; Gundermann and Popper, 1975; Grovhoug and Henderson, 1976; Stone et al., 1979; Brock et al., 1979). These studies have all, in one way or another, pointed out the problems and shortcomings of the visual census technique, but have accepted the method. A recently developed variation in the technique is to use the species-time procedure. This method replaces time for area and is based on the rate at which fish species are encountered. It has been successfully used by Thompson and Schmidt (1977) and Jones and Thompson (1978) in the Caribbean. The technique provides an index of relative abundance of fishes seen; it is, however, beset with some of the same problems facing the species-area method, particularly the identification of more secretive fishes. The visual census method underestimates both the most cryptic as well as the most abundant fish species. It reasonably samples most other resident coral reef fishes. These results are generalities probably applicable to fishes on most coraJl reefs of the world. They have been substantiated on a Hawaiian reef (present study) as well as on an artificial reef in the Caribbean Sea (Stone et al., 1979). Thus, in summary, only diurnally exposed fish species are censused with any accuracy using the visual census technique; the degree to which the more cryptic species are enumerated is related to the shelter present, to chance, and proficiency of the census-taker.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author wishes to thank all of the individuals who helped in the field collection of fishes and to Drs. J. Brock, T. Clarke and J. Grovhoug for commenting on the manuscript. This research was supported by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Grant R80398301O. Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology Contribution No. 593.
LITERATURE CITED

Bardach, J. E. ]959. The summer standing crop offish on a shallow Bermuda reef. Limnol. Oceanogr. 4: 77-85. Brock, R. E., C. Lewis, and R. C. Wass. ]979. Stability and structure of a fish community on a coral patch reef in Hawaii. Mar. BioI. 54: 28]-292. Brock, V. E. ]954. A preliminary report on a method of estimating reef fish populations. J. Wildl. Mgmt. 18: 297-308. Chapman, C. J., A. D. F. Johnstone, J. R. Dunn, and D. J. Creasy. 1974. Reactions offish to sound generated by diver's open-circuit underwater breathing apparatus. Mar. BioI. 27: 357-366. Chave, E. H., and D. B. Eckert. 1974. Ecological aspects of the distributions of fishes at Fanning Island. Pacif. Sci. 28: 297-317. Clarke, E., A. Ben-Tuvia, and H. Steinitz. 1968. Observations on a coastal fish community, Dahlak Archipelago, Red Sea. Bull. Sea Fish. Res. Stn. Haifa 49: 15-31.

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Go]dman, B., and F. H. Talbot. ]976. Aspects of the ecology of coral reef fishes. Pages 125-154 in O. A. Jones and R. Endean, eds, Biology and geology of coral reefs. Academic Press, New York and London, Vol. 3 (Biology 2). 435 pp. Grovhoug, J. G., and R. S. Henderson. 1976. Distribution of inshore fishes at Canton Atoll. Pages 99-157 in S. V. Smith and R. S, Henderson, eds. An environmental survey of Canton Atoll Lagoon 1973. San Diego, Nava] Undersea Center NUC TP 395. ]92 pp. Gundermann, N., and D. Popper. 1975. Some aspects of recolonization of coral rocks in Eilat (Gulf of Aqaba) by fish populations after poisoning. Mar. BioI. 33: 109-117. Hobson, E. S. 1974. Feeding relationships of teleostean fishes on coral reefs in Kona, Hawaii. Fish. Bull. U.S. 72: 915-]031. Itzkowitz, M. 1974. A behavioural reconnaissance of some Jamaican reef fishes. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 55: 87-1 ]8. Jones, R. S., and J. A. Chase. 1975. Community structure and distribution of fishes in an enclosed high island lagoon in Guam. Micronesica II: 127-]48. ---, and M. J. Thompson. 1978. Comparison of Florida reef fish assemblages using a rapid visual technique. Bu]1. Mar. Sci. 28: 159-172. Key, G. S. ]973. Reef fishes in the bay. Pages 51--66 in S. V. Smith, K. E. Chave and D. T. O. Kam, eds. Atlas of Kaneohe Bay: A reef ecosystem under stress. Univ. Hawaii Sea Grant Tech. Rept. TR-72-01. 128 pp. McCain, J. c., and J. M. Peck, Jr. 1973. The effects of a Hawaiian power plant on the distribution and abundance of reef fishes. Univ. Hawaii Sea Grant Advisory Rept. UNIHI-SEAGRANT-AR73-03. II pp. McVey, J. P. 1970. Fishery ecology of the Pokai artificial reef. Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. Hawaii, Hono]ulu. 268 pp. Nolan, R. S" R. R. McConnoughey, and C. R. Stearns. 1975. Fishes inhabiting two small nuclear test craters at Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Is]ands. Micronesica II: 205-217. Odum, H. T. and E. P. Odum. 1955. Trophic structure and productivity of a windward coral reef community on Eniwetok Atoll. Ecol. Monogr. 25: 291-320. Randall, J. E. 1963a. An analysis of the fish populations of artificial and natural reefs in the Virgin Islands. Carib. J. Sci. 3: 31-47. --. 1963b. Methods of collecting small fishes. Underwat. Nat. I: 6-1],32-36. ---. 1963c. Additional recoveries of tagged reef fishes from the Virgin Islands. Proc. Gulf Carib. Fish. Inst. 15: 155-]57. Risk, M. J. ]972. Fish diversity on a coral reef in the Virgin Islands. Atoll Res. Bull. ]53: ]-6. Russell, B. C., F. H. Talbot, G. R. V. Anderson, and B. Go]dman. ]978. Collection and sampling of reef fishes. Pages 329-345 in D. R. Stoddart and R. E. Johannes, eds. Coral reefs: research methods. UNESCO, Page Bros., Norwich, 58] pp. Smith, C. L. 1973. Small rotenone stations: a tool for studying coral reef fish communities. Am. Mus. Novit. (2512): 1-21. ---, and J. C. Tyler. 1973. Direct observations of resource sharing in cora] reef fish. Helgolander Wiss. Meeresunters. 24: 264-275. Stone, R. B., H. L. Pratt, R. O. Parker, Jr., and G. E. Davis. 1979. A comparison offish populations on an artificial and natural reef in the Florida Keys. Marine Fisheries Review 41: 1-]]. Thompson, M. J. and T. W. Schmidt. 1977. Validation of the species/time random count technique sampling fish assemblages. Pages 283-288 in D. L. Taylor, ed. Proc. 3rd int. Symp. coral Reefs. Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Univ. Miami, Vol. I. 656 pp. DATE ACCEPTED: July 29, 1980. ADDRESS: Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, P.O. Box /344, Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744.