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

REEF divers - Photo by Janna Nichols
REEF divers. Photo by Janna Nichols.

If you go for a dive almost anywhere in the world, you can record what you see and contribute those observations to a long-term, large-scale database of marine fish coordinated by Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). In California and other temperate areas, there’s also opportunity to add observations of algae and invertebrates. In the western Atlantic, you could catch the invasive lionfish and have a local chef cook it up for you according to the REEF cookbook. In short, there’s something for everyone.

The Basics

REEF started as a citizen science program following the philosophy of the successful Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology programs focused on birds – capitalizing on existing recreational activity to answer basic scientific questions. In this case, the activity was diving in the Caribbean. Founding members thought to themselves, “there isn’t a lot known about many of the fishes in this area, we could just have people tell us what they see in different sites and write down their observations and mail it to some place”. From that first day, REEF grew to establish standardized but still simple methodologies and specialized projects for each region it operates in.

Fundamentally, though, “it all comes back to really teaching people how to see underwater”, how to pay attention to each individual fish even as it hides in the folds of a kelp forest or colorful reef habitat. REEF’s substantial collection of observations can now speak to species distributions and changes over time.

Program Participation
REEF makes it easy for volunteers to join in – all it takes is a dive. Once involved in the program, volunteers can move up the ranks through experience and passing tests. Each rank allows volunteers to participate in more complex protocols or take a leadership role within the community. For example, volunteers can also help with ‘fishinars’ (webinars about the fish volunteers most commonly observe), recruit at dive shows, teach classes, help with data management, and plan for the advanced assessment team. These advanced assessment teams take data on focused local projects. 

The regions REEF operates in. Each region has its own protocol specific 
to the species in the area.

Overall, REEF engages over 14,000 divers, including around 200 super-volunteers who collect about 50% of the total data. Many of these super volunteers complete over 100 surveys annually. REEF also boasts many long-term volunteers who have participated since the first year of the program. The motivations of any of these volunteers are wide-ranging, but fundamentally contribute to “develop[ing] a network of people who speak fish with you”, as described by the volunteer coordinator. The growing online community of volunteers connects otherwise solo activity to this larger network. As one volunteer stated, “it’s not a competition, but I’m winning”, reflecting on the competitive nature people involved in this online community vying for the highest number of surveys completed.

Through feedback from individual volunteers, there are a number of program attributes that help keep the volunteers coming back. There’s a bit of a treasure hunt feeling to the program, where each volunteer can build a life list of fish and other aquatic species observed. The ability for volunteers to move up in the program and participate in new programs facilitates continued learning and a sense of growth. Volunteers also like diving with a purpose – seeing data they collect while diving in reports and articles is quite motivating, and having a good excuse to go diving never hurts.

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals
The REEF leadership strive for two main missions: getting good data to contribute to science (particularly species ranges and abundance) and providing a meaningful experience for divers to empower them to take ownership of the resource. Over the long-term, these missions complement each other and are mutually supported by continued training opportunities and new opportunities to volunteer while still capitalizing on the large and growing amount of information already collected. On the mission for new science, REEF boasts an impressive publication record (here are just the ones by the science director) in academic peer-reviewed journals and considers these the high water mark for scientific success. The empowerment mission is a bit harder to quantify, but anecdotally, volunteers have subsequently joined regional stakeholder groups, marine protected area collaboratives, or other environmental groups, suggesting at least some success.

Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach
Citizen science data sets are often observational (as opposed to experimental), big, long-term, and messy. Critics of citizen science data now realize that many of the problems are just characteristic of the data type, regardless of who is doing the observing. REEF founders wanted data collection to be easily blended in with normal diving activity, so there’s a low bar for entry initially and people can build skills during participation in the program. This structure of data collection, which they call the “roving diver technique” is especially good for rare and non-commercially fished species picked up only by REEF because of their high spatial coverage. These are species that otherwise would not receive much monitoring attention because of the time required.

Data Uses
Educational Uses
To meet the dual mission of the program, REEF uses data for empowerment through education of the volunteers and for management applications as well as scientific applications. To continually provide educational opportunities for the volunteers, the website serves as a main hub, where people can view their own data and verify if what they thought was an unusual observation was actually something special. While there, volunteers will also find summary data from the program as a whole, including what species are at a given site. These summary data are also helpful for math and science teachers who want real-life examples of how to use a database. The very fact that non-professional zoologists collect all the data helps tailor outreach and education materials that resonate both with volunteers and other members of the public.

Management Uses
Management applications of REEF data were structurally part of the program since the very beginning. REEF has close working partnerships with NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary program and NOAA Fisheries, as well as other state and regional marine management agencies. Citizen science meets the National Marine Sanctuaries Act goal of working with community and nonprofit groups while also collecting useful data, all for a relatively small amount of staff time on the Sanctuary’s part. Committing to making that time commitment small, REEF makes the data available to everyone, including these dedicated users, through an online data tool that makes the data easy to understand without the time needed for statistics. In this way, REEF and other citizen science groups act as service providers for the clients of agencies who need data for their decision-making processes.

REEF data contribute to the diversity of data available for decision-making and consequently REEF is part of a larger movement to include kinds of knowledge operating outside of the scientific method in the information base supporting management decisions. This perspective has already proven important especially for fisheries management councils, who appreciate a diversity of data sources to triangulate on needed decisions. For example, counts of rockfish in Washington state contributed to an endangered species listing and associated management. Other data from that region about sea pens, urchin, and octopus were used to adjust harvest rules. Data in many regions of the world are also included for evaluations of marine protected areas (MPAs), especially since the data extends to years before the protected areas were put in place.

Finally, excited volunteers can and do take the data to stakeholder-driven management arenas. For example, one volunteer served as a diver/non-consumptive user  representative of a Marine Life Protection Act regional stakeholder group used to plan for California’s marine protected areas and utilized REEF data to help determine the placement and shape of MPAs based on where divers go. Another volunteer successfully campaigned for a spot on the fisheries commission in the Pacific Northwest and bases many of his commission decisions on experiences and data from REEF. In one more example, volunteers collected data on where divers go compared to where giant pacific octopus inhabit to lobby successfully for protected octopus habitat.

REEF diver conducting a survey. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Scientific Uses
The scientific uses of REEF data are in many ways shared with monitoring efforts in general. In the early days of the program, program coordinators and partners used the data to answer specific questions about species distribution and abundance. As time passes, additional questions and applications arise, such as trends over time, tracking invasive species, and describing newly discovered species.

New applications of invasive species tracking are particularly good according to REEF’s scientific director “because it shows the core of the species range all the way to the tail of the species range”. Unlike university-based monitoring efforts, REEF’s near global distribution tracking all species that divers observe can pick up the first adventurous lionfish far outside the documented range, for example. Divers in California detected an invasive tunicate and reported it to NOAA Sanctuary staff so they could be prepared and proactive in coming up with a response plan. Overall, however, most of REEF’s scientific applications come from outside requests to use the data. They receive 1-5 requests a month, about 10% of which make it to publication.

Scientific Credibility

verification of data quality
REEF has many points to verify the quality of their data – some focused on the volunteers while others aimed at the program as a whole. For example, REEF has repeatedly organized data comparisons of volunteers to graduate students and professional scientists – all of which show participant capability at their ‘roving diver’ technique doesn’t vary by professional experience. In addition, scientists and data users were involved in protocol design in each region (University of Miami and the Nature Conservancy for the Caribbean protocols; Sanctuaries, National Park Service, and CA Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists for California protocols), making sure the data collected are of adequate quality and type to be useful. The program is also structured to accommodate some variation in participant abilities, to see the signal through the noise.

Strategies focused on the volunteers and their activity include a volunteer ranking system for divers to certify their abilities. REEF provides optional classes to support learning and expects that learning happens on each dive, so the ranking system incorporates metrics of both kinds of learning. But every volunteer still receives a level of oversight, starting with the online database. As a diver enters data, the system checks for incomplete data and checks to see if an observation fits within ‘typical’ sightings. If an observation is in less than 1% of sightings for a given area, the database will ask for a confirmation and a REEF staff person will follow up, often asking for photographic evidence.

raw data transparency and access
Science director Christy Pattengill-Semmens has never refused a request for the raw data. Summary data is available on the REEF website, but raw data needs some big data transfer capabilities since so many divers contribute their sightings.

clarity of communications
As a whole, citizen science programs – especially those utilizing observational monitoring methods – are  starting to be more clearly understood by data users and the general public. REEF utilizes its website to describe the many data verification processes to their data users and program staff are happy to answer any questions, making REEF an easy-to-understand resource for those needing fish sightings data.

willingness and capability to adapt methods
Each region that REEF operates in has designated partners who will use the data and who helped design the regional protocol in accordance with their needs. This means that in each region, REEF staff worked in collaboration with state scientists, Sanctuary staff, and National Park service to establish new protocols to be rigorous and useful.

Program Sustainability
REEF’s challenge is to continually keep people engaged while maintaining their valuable long-standing data set. This involves adding ‘extras’ to their program while encouraging divers to continue to report their observations on their regular dives. These extras require resources and the ever-growing data set provide some new resource challenges. Looking forward, REEF is hoping to add new staff for outreach and web support, and to further support database development and fieldwork.

Looking Toward the Future
REEF is a growing program and, at this point, a pillar of the citizen science community worldwide. Serving that role in the future, they’d like to see better cooperation with other marine citizen science groups. For example, REEF is an easy-entry program (any diver can record observation), so might be able to serve as an introduction or training for people to then move into more complex programs. Cooperation is already helping answer some fast-moving and short-term questions like what is happening with sea star wasting along the west coast of the US. Collecting data on such phenomena provide the ‘something extra’ that motivates REEF volunteers while leveraging their capacity to answer these new questions on the tight time frame needed for response.

Participants and staff of REEF continue to spread the word about the program and its useful data set at conferences or other venues. Volunteers in almost every body of water around the globe already can participate – and the Mediterranean and Red Seas are next on the list. Of course, it’s always nice to get more divers and increase the participation of existing volunteers through advanced assessment teams and expert-qualification. Follow their efforts and record what you see on your next dive!