**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

Standing in front of the large kelp forest tank at the Monterey Bay aquarium, volunteer SCUBA divers with the Reef Check program look at the list of species held within like a checklist. “I’ve seen all but one of these” says one. “And sometimes there’s a lot more sea stars” says another. The tank is hopefully a good inspiration for the kids nearby staring googly-eyed through the glass to become divers in the future.  “You haven’t lived until you see sunlight come through a kelp forest in nature”, the group tells the kids, and moves on to other exhibits.

This trip to the aquarium precedes the annual party, where Reef Check leaders recount the activities of the past year. They’ve continued growing their base of divers, completed more surveys, and count the year a success. Reef Check California’s mission is “to build a network of informed and involved citizens who support the sustainable use and conservation of our nearshore marine resources…[through] surveys of nearshore reefs providing data on the status of key indicator species”.  Its recently released six-year report documents over 250 divers surveyed 80 sites across the state. photo of a proud Reef Check team, taken by Colleen Wisniewski

When it comes to MPA monitoring and citizen science, Reef Check California is far from the new kid on the block. Their data have informed (or will inform) the baseline monitoring phase of all four MPA regions in the state. To learn more about this experience from their perspective, and about the Reef Check model in general, we conducted an interview with the Program Director, Jan Freiwald (who also serves on the advisory committee for this California Citizen Science Initiative), and held a focus group with Jan and a small group of volunteers, who generously took time away from their aquarium visit to share their thoughts.

The Basics
Reef Check CA is a statewide program that monitors and reports on reef health. It balances goals of rigorous science to inform management, and environmental education in service of environmental stewardship. In pursuit of this mission Reef Check CA brings teams of well-trained volunteer SCUBA divers to rocky reef sites throughout California, where they conduct surveys of fish, algae, and invertebrate species. The program is fairly resource intensive in terms of the contributions and commitments of participants and equipment requirements. It has established a high bar for entry, extensive training requirements, and a hierarchy of skills that develop gradually over time as a volunteer continues to participate. Links with government, nonprofit, and university partners have been a crucial factor in Reef Check CA’s success. The program is part of the Reef Check Foundation, which is the official community-based reef monitoring program of the United Nations (for the sake of brevity, we will use “Reef Check” to refer to Reef Check California, as our study has not examined activities outside the state).

Program Participation
Reef Check volunteers for the most part perform data collection after signing up for surveys at a location determined and organized by program coordinators. Each trip involves diving for the better part of a day and counting organisms along 18 30-meter transects. People are assigned to teams focused on particular things – fish, invertebrates, seaweeds, substrate, and sometimes urchin sizing. A handful of avid volunteers also serve as data captains, picking a location and organizing data collection in the field to make sure that all the categories of organisms get counted. Still others serve as program trainers or help with volunteer recruiting.

There are two main pathways of recruitment into Reef Check – one through university science diving programs, another as a member of the public. The trainings differ, as the university science diving programs roll Reef Check training into a much longer program. Before signing up, divers must have a documented 30 dives (15 in temperate water or colder). Training takes place over two weekends in early spring and recertification is required annually – for which approximately 60% of the volunteers return. Each training concludes with tests to qualify for the different organisms counted. New divers typically start with seaweeds and substrate, adding other protocols with more experience.

There are also different, though overlapping, motivations for signing up. Members of the public sign up to help support ocean conservation, especially after observing changes in the ecosystem and wanting to make that observation more quantitative and scientific. For those already enrolled in science diving or on track for a marine science career, Reef Check offers the opportunity to get in the field do fieldwork in some of the most desirable regions of the coast to balance out the large amount of time inside doing data analysis and writing in their careers.

Once recruited into the program, there is a social incentive to keep volunteering. Participants cited conversations on the boat, networking opportunities, and general camaraderie as some of the most rewarding aspects of the program. Proof that management is productively using the data maintains the excitement of why many volunteers joined in the first place – to contribute to something bigger. The science and social activities combine to make the program fun, and that’s what really keeps volunteers coming back.

Management applications also cross over into the relatively new science of MPAs, where people can be proud of producing applied science without having to openly participate in the politically-sensitive MPA planning process, so having the disconnect between advocacy and data collection might be useful for volunteer recruitment and retention.

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals
Reef Check pursues two distinct goals: science to inform management, and education in service of environmental stewardship. These combine to form the overall mission of science in support of nearshore marine resource management, where useful, rigorous information on which to base decisions is the ultimate goal. Program staff described the science and education goals of Reef Check as a “double whammy approach” to marine conservation: an educated citizenry helps support and make management more successful. Science/management goals are met through thoughtful use of the data (see the data use section below). Education goals are met in a more subtle way, through solid training and offering opportunities for volunteers to learn more about the ecology of the places they dive.

The goals of science in service of management and education largely support each other because more knowledgeable volunteers produce better data. Management applications make the science “more real” (in the words of volunteers), helping to keep volunteers motivated and engaged in training activities. Yet, rigorous science takes priority and sets a challenge for volunteers to strive for. For example, volunteers reported through a program survey that the training and checking requirements that contribute to scientific rigor mean that people often can’t experience all parts of the program. They have to work to demonstrate they are ready to count and measure fish, the hardest part of the protocol.

Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach
In any citizen science program there’s a challenge of making sure that the skills of the participants are well-matched to the monitoring task. This is especially true in a biodiverse, complex environment like the rocky reefs of California. Reef Check has addressed this through development of its protocols, and setting standards for its participants. As one focus group participant said “in the same way that you’re culling your species list, you’re kind of selecting for a certain type of person”.

The Reef Check protocol has evolved over the years as they have learned lessons about this matching. But conversations with the Department of Fish and Wildlife (the intended recipients of the data), initially set it on good footing. These conversations set the bounds of what kind of data would be useful, and then Reef Check staff adapted these needs to the capabilities of the volunteer base by asking questions like ‘can volunteers see the difference between these two species of algae’. These early discussions on data are one of the keys to the successful integration of Reef Check data into MPA monitoring and other management arenas.

Another important aspect of the development of a useful monitoring protocol is the fact that the Reef Check protocol is based on the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) protocol. That makes it possible to integrate the two monitoring programs, as data are compatible with each other.  Reef Check used the PISCO protocol as a starting point for its protocol development and modified it through field testing so that it became feasible for volunteer citizen scientists to conduct the surveys.

Reef Check is in the midst of another calibration, as staff work to incorporate fish lengths as part of the dataset to better fit MPA monitoring needs. The fish protocol part of Reef Check was already the most challenging section for volunteers, so one might expect a drop in fish-qualified divers. However, there wasn’t a shortage of fish counters this season. Plus, volunteers have already demonstrated the ability to learn increasingly difficult portions of the protocol. The ability to increase the task load, and rigor required of volunteers is a result of high volunteer retention. Many of the divers have done surveys with Reef Check for three, four or more seasons. It is these divers that are ready for additional tasks and that adopted the new fish sizing protocol first.

Data Uses

Educational Uses
Educational efforts thus far have mostly been aimed at the volunteers themselves, rather than a broader audience. Volunteers gain specific knowledge about rocky reef ecosystems and natural resource management issues such as the MPA design, implementation, and monitoring. Data are presented back to volunteers through an annual party and printed reports, most recently the six-year summary. Since many of the volunteers are teachers, educators or community leaders they use the information they acquire through Reef Check to educate and inform others.

Outside its own volunteers, Reef Check largely puts its data to use in management and scientific settings, but is looking for opportunities in educational arenas as well. Program staff are also working to put Reef Check data to use in a formal education context through an interactive Google Earth platform tied to state science standards. Currently, Reef Check is developing a Speakers Bureau to reach out to non-diving audiences and inform and educate them about California’s MPAs and the importance of monitoring them.

Management Uses
As mentioned above, the Reef Check program was specifically designed to deliver useful science to managers, and the staff have put considerable effort into developing relationships and processes for realizing this goal. Reef Check has contributed data (or is contributing) to the baseline monitoring efforts in all four regional MPA networks in California. For the Central Coast specifically, the baseline data are available on OceanSpaces and in the region’s summary report. They have pursued direct relationships with DFW, beginning with method development and continuing to make sure DFW can make use of the data.

As with many citizen science programs, Reef Check is finding that providing raw data to non-science users is not necessarily sufficient. In working directly with DFW they found that use was more likely when staff analyzed and synthesized the data so that managers did not have to spend the time working with the data themselves. Maintaining the capacity to manage and develop products from their data is an ongoing challenge, helped in part by the co-location of Reef Check’s program director, Jan Freiwald, with PISCO investigators at UC Santa Cruz and their collaborations on many monitoring projects.

Interestingly, volunteers we spoke with were not concerned with the details of delivering data to managers, or the specific decisions supported by the program’s data. The existence of those links were deemed very important, but volunteers expressed a basic trust that this process was generally working well in the hands of program staff. They appreciated learning about the outcomes of applying data to management but were not necessarily interested in watching it happen.

Scientific Uses
While the main scientific goal of Reef Check is to provide useful science to managers, the large dataset provides opportunities to answer many questions about ocean health using the MPA indicators. For example, a graduate student recently used the database to look at timing and levels of blue rockfish recruitment in her study site.

Reef Check’s Nearshore Ecosystem Database is becoming more well-known among graduate students in the Central Coast, so the data may also play a larger role in local dissertation work in the coming years. In the Reef Check Worldwide program, with a history stretching back 15 years, the data have featured in scientific publications about remote island ecology, where the scientific understanding is sometimes data-poor; this is beginning to be regular practice in California as well.

Volunteers noted that citizen science allows more data to be collected at a lower cost. They also noted that large amounts of data provide more rigor to the science and credibility to the resulting conclusions.

Scientific Credibility

verification of data quality
Data quality has featured as a program priority since the early years, and Reef Check addresses it in a variety of ways. Reef Check’s indicators were derived from existing scientific protocols deployed in the region by PISCO, so protocol verification could also focus on volunteer capability, not methods development. To ensure all volunteers properly follow the carefully thought through protocol, every Reef Check survey is overseen by program staff, and this is considered critical for data quality.

Volunteers must certify their knowledge through a series of evaluations and are required to recertify every year before the diving season starts. Each category of indicators is a separate certification. The diving experience requirements (i.e. volunteers have to be experienced cold water divers) for joining also dictate the volunteers’ focus on following the protocol rather than dive technique. According to one volunteer, “the protocol’s the most important part”.

raw data transparency and access
Reef Check hosts its data on the Nearshore Ecosystem Database (NED), which just underwent an update for increased functionality. The baseline monitoring data as part of the first 5 years of Central Coast MPAs is also hosted on OceanSpaces alongside other baseline projects. Both provide easy access to raw data should anyone want to take a look.

clarity of communications
Volunteers stated that one of the main strengths of Reef Check in connecting to management is that they can provide a consistent, long-term dataset in metrics that managers can understand, like abundance and diversity. They also clearly describe their methods and the steps Reef Check has taken to tailor the protocol to volunteer capabilities (like counting olive and yellowtail rockfish species together because they look very similar) while maintaining standard monitoring practices. Opportunities like the Central Coast baseline monitoring symposium allow Reef Check to get the word out about the program and participate in the scientific discussion about MPA monitoring. In addition to reporting data within the framework and timeline of MPA monitoring, Reef Check also produces its own reports, allowing it to present a comprehensive view of what the program has achieved.

willingness and capability to adapt methods
Reef Check most recently exhibited their ability to respond to manager needs with the addition of fish length measurements to their fish protocol. The initial protocol was established using a science advisory team and field tests before implementation, so all proposed changes must be similarly reviewed. This makes changes difficult, but possible when needed.

The protocol also undergoes periodic review through comparisons with PISCO’s professional data and adaptations are considered as necessary to strengthen the data set and account for the capabilities of volunteers. Recently, due to the long-term commitment of many volunteers these adaptations have been increases in information content of the data (i.e. higher size frequency fish data, addition of collection of data on marine trash and relict fishing gear) rather than reductions in data complexity.

Program Sustainability
Long term, sustainability depends on balancing scientific rigor, expectations of volunteers, and fun, and Reef Check volunteers credit establishing that balance in the first year with the group’s ongoing momentum. Fun is key, because during field season, Reef Check can be a serious time commitment. A single survey often takes all day, especially for people who don’t live nearby, and the activity requires a lot of physical stamina.

While volunteers pointed out that Reef Check is a cost-effective way of monitoring MPAs because large amounts of time for fieldwork is donated, the program is far from free. Here’s a few things that require a substantial commitment of resources or would be nice to have to strengthen the program:

  • staff time to manage the network, would be nice to have a volunteer coordinator per region
  • boat time, gas, and insurance
  • staff time for data analysis or dedicated statistician
  • communicator focused on education and outreach
  • resources for recruiting effort
  • fun events like the annual party, social media
  • survey supplies (slate, measurement tools, etc.)
  • a science advisory team, which includes staff time spent supporting that effort, and the time and travel of the advisors themselves.

Looking Towards the Future
Always thinking about improving Reef Check and maintaining relationships with state managers who use their data, program staff have a small wish-list for the future. A science advisory team to oversee protocol changes and data analysis when future staff may not have that specific expertise would be nice in guiding the program, and bolstering Reef Check’s scientific credibility as an institution. Having a data manager on the team would also help to formalize and maintain relationships with managers and others who would utilize the data in summarized form.

Volunteers we spoke with also want to see Reef Check devote attention to maintaining the science/fun balance, continuing to foster the social aspect of the surveys, annual parties, and other community-building aspects of the program. A sign of success is watching the same volunteers continue to return year after year, taking ownership over their region of the coast as they do their own backyard; this already happens to a degree. Part of this ownership may come through figuring out different kinds of ways for volunteers to get involved, for example through taking videos of group activities.

Participants hope that continuing a long-term dataset will create a legacy of information about marine protected areas so that Reef Check data become a go-to resource for understanding changes in marine protected areas and broader ocean health.