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MONITORING and RESEARCH

As the REEF Fish Survey Project has grown, several scientific papers and products have been produced using the roving diver survey method and the REEF database. In addition, the REEF Fish Survey Project has become integrated into several projects. These collaborations have included those with management agencies and other non-profit organizations.

Scientific Papers and Reports || Current Scientific Projects

Using Volunteers in Data Collection
Conducting research in the marine environment can be a challenge. The costs associated with in situ activities, coupled with the unreliable nature of marine conditions, make the consistent acquisition of sufficient information difficult. In addition, the available "scientific manpower" is often insufficient to generate the amount and diversity of information needed for research or monitoring and assessment. As a result, research and monitoring programs have recently begun to include community-based volunteer groups. These "citizen scientists" play an important role in the overall understanding of natural systems.

In coastal marine systems, the large survey effort, wide geographic coverage, and extended temporal scale of volunteer data collection efforts effectively address several types of information that traditional scientific efforts often cannot. The first of these is determining the geographic distribution of a species, and subsequently documenting changes in distribution over time. Range shifts can then be linked to known habitat changes or climate and/or oceanographic conditions. Additionally, knowing a species' distribution, coupled with abundance estimates, can provide an idea of its rarity. If the volunteer data collection includes all species of a given taxon, as in REEF fish surveys, several basic questions can be evaluated. For example, the analysis of species complexes, such as patterns in species presence and the similarity between areas of given habitat(s), is possible. Another advantage to documenting all species encountered is gaining information on non-managed species. Often, extensive data only exists on harvested or otherwise commercially important species.

There is no doubt that the use of non-scientific volunteers in ecological monitoring programs increases the data available for use in resource management and scientific understanding. However, it is necessary to address several issues in order to effectively use volunteer data. These issues include the wide variety of skill levels of the divers collecting the data, the potential for misidentifications, and the mostly qualitative nature of the data (as is the case with REEF data). The amount of data collected greatly minimizes the effect of these issues.

The power of the REEF Fish Survey Project, and other community-based programs, is in the large survey effort. The statistical power to detect change increases as sample size increases, and the power of non expert data was shown to be comparable to or better than that generated by a smaller group of experts (Pattengill-Semmens and Semmens, 1998). Confidence in data used from the REEF database can be increased by selecting a sighting frequency cut-off (i.e. only using information for species seen in more than 5% of the surveys) or by selectively using data from REEF members with more experience and skill. To this end, REEF has implemented a skill level system with two levels: novice and advanced. Data can be displayed over the Website for all surveys (all skills combined) or separated by skill level. To be considered advanced, members pass a series of exams and have to conduct a minimum number of surveys each year. REEF's most advanced members of REEF make up its Advanced Assessment Team (AAT), and participate in special opportunities such as monitoring contracts with National Marine Sanctuaries and other research expeditions. Click here for more information on REEF's skill levels.

Therefore, while there are limitations in the scientific utility and application of volunteer data such as REEF's, the information provided is valuable for specific science and management needs.  REEF is currently being used in a variety of research projects and papers, and you can read about these on the Scientific Papers and Reports page and the Current Scientific Projects page.


Reef Environmental Education Foundation, 2000-2001
Date Last Modified: 07/26/00

Site Design: Brice X. Semmens
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