The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network- Charting a Course Toward Data Interoperability

By Erica K. Towle, Ph.D., National Coral Reef Monitoring Program Coordinator

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) was established by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) in 1995 with the primary task of reporting on the condition of the world's coral reefs. The GCRMN works through a global network of stakeholders coordinated by regional nodes for the management and conservation of coral reefs. The major goals of the GCRMN are to:

  • strengthen scientific understanding of the status and trends of coral reef ecosystems at different places around the world;
  • strengthen communication among members and provide information on network activities, opportunities to participate in regional and global reporting, and relevant meetings;
  • provide members with technical assistance; and, make coral reef monitoring data publicly available online in a timely fashion.

 Aerial view of a developed coastline in Monaco with mountains in the background and the tops of green trees in the foreground.
View of the coastline from the GCRMN meeting in Monaco.

In March 2022, the GCRMN Steering Committee* met in the Principality of Monaco as part of Monaco Ocean Week from March 22-24. Over 20 people participated in person and 11 people participated virtually. The countries of Australia, Monaco, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Kenya, Ecuador, the Maldives, Palau, and more were represented at the meeting.

Room of people watching a speaker at a podium and a screen with image in background.
Dr. Erica Towle, NCRMP Coordinator, opened the session on the Global Coral Reef Status Report.

As NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program's National Coral Reef Monitoring Program Coordinator, I have attended the GCRMN Steering Committee meetings and workshops since 2019. The most recent meeting in Monaco was a special one, not only because it was the first in-person meeting since the pandemic began, but it was also the first in-person meeting since the United States became the International Coral Reef Initiative's co-chair.

The meetings centered around continued momentum from the release of the Global Coral Reef Status Report that GCRMN published in October 2021. This report was the first global report since 2008, and took over two years to complete. One of the biggest challenges was compiling data contributed by more than 300 members of the network. The global dataset spanned more than 40 years from 1978 to 2019, and consisted of almost two million observations from more than 12,000 sites, in 73 reef-bearing countries around the world.

Image of a world map with a variety of differnt colored dots along the coastlines of the continents.
Map of the monitoring sites used in the GCRMN report.

Out of all those data points, two indicators (hard coral cover and algae cover) were chosen for the report because they could be standardized and compared on a global scale. The process also identified gaps, like fisheries and socioeconomic data.

Side-by-side graphs of data using blue line and blue shaded areas to depict change of percent cover over time.
Hard coral cover and algae cover were the two indicators that were used in the GCRMN status report.

A major outcome of the Monaco meetings was a commitment to increasing data interoperability. In other words, standardizing data formats as much as possible so that future reports won't take as long to collate. Ultimately, the goal is to produce global reports more frequently in a way that doesn't involve significant data translation and processing. To do this, the group decided to build on global, community recognized data standards like Darwin Core. The Darwin Core Standard offers a stable, straightforward, and flexible framework for compiling biodiversity data from varied and variable sources. Darwin Core is an evolving, community-developed biodiversity data standard that plays a fundamental role in the sharing, use, and reuse of open-access biodiversity data. In practice, using Darwin Core revolves around a standard file format that enables data publishers to share their data using a common terminology. This standardization not only simplifies the process of publishing biodiversity datasets, but it also makes it easy for users to discover, search, evaluate, and compare datasets.

The GCRMN Steering Committee believes using Darwin Core will improve data interoperability for future reports and will pursue this option in the coming months. If the status report can be produced more frequently, it can be used to inform global and regional policies for coral reef ecosystem conservation and management at a faster pace. This is an exciting development for the field of coral reef conservation - stay tuned for updates on our progress!

*The GCRMN Steering Committee is comprised of a Global Coordinator, a UN Environment representative, the ICRI Host Secretariat representatives (co-chairs), major supporter country representatives, and representatives from the regional networks (e.g., Western Indian Ocean, Pacific, East Asia, Eastern Tropical Pacific, Caribbean, etc.) The Steering Committee tries to meet 1-2 times a year.

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