The idea of an annual fish monitoring came over 25 year ago, with the first official Great American Fish Count (GAFC) in 1992. Dr. Gary Davis led the Channel Islands National Park effort as way to encourage sport divers to report fish sightings. The small number of marine scientists, the immensity of the oceans and the scarcity of funding required that volunteers be trained to assist with a nation-wide fish monitoring effort.
The use of volunteers to monitor animal species has proven to be extremely successful. The GAFC was modeled after the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which continues to play a significant role in documenting and raising awareness of the declining populations of migratory birds, and has helped reduce destruction of their habitat.
The first GAFC event was held at Anacapa Island, California with fifty participants. The event was focused during the first two weeks of July to attempt to capture as many divers as possible and attract media attention. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary joined in 1994. By 1995, the GAFC had become a coordinated effort between the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The ultimate goal of the GAFC was to have divers become interested enough in fish monitoring to map and adopt sites that could then be visited year-round.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program expressed interest in the GAFC and Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) working together to support and promote volunteer fish monitoring throughout the entire Sanctuary program. By the end of 1997, the GAFC evolved into a national event held during July of each year coordinated by American Oceans Campaign, REEF, and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program. By 1999, REEF became the sole organizer of the GAFC with continued partnership with and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program.
In 2001, a full-time dedicated staff was hired to managed the logistics and planning of the GAFC thanks to the Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and PADI Project Aware. The 2001 event was a huge success. The number of seminars quadrupled and many dives were conducted throughout the nation, Canada, and in the Caribbean. Many GAFC dives were conducted within National Marine Sanctuaries, such as Florida Keys, Gray's Reef, Stellwagen Bank, Flower Garden Banks, Monterey, Channel Islands, and Hawaii. Approximately 900 people participated and over 1,900 surveys were conducted during the July event that year.
Due to the increased participation and overwhelming response and commitment from REEF's Survey Project regions throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of California, and British Columbia, in 2002, the Great American Fish Count officially changed its name to the Great Annual Fish Count.
Today, REEF is the sole coordinator for the event which continues to grow and brings in approximately 2,000 marine life surveys in the month of July alone. These efforts reach hundreds of volunteers throughout REEF's survey regions in dozens of countries. 17th GAFC this year in 2008 is sure to be a great one - get involved!