In addition to supporting ongoing data collection at sites world-wide by REEF volunteers, through the years, REEF has been involved in a variety of scientific projects and monitoring in collaboration with other organizations and partners. These projects are typically conducted by REEF's Advanced Assessment Team (AAT), surveyors who have achieved REEF Expert status (Levels 4 and 5). Summaries of these projects are below, and links to project-specific webpages are given when available.

Current REEF Monitoring and Assessment Projects

Annual Sub-tidal Monitoring in the Salish Sea: San Juan Islands and South Puget Sound, Washington and Hornby Island, British Columbia (2013 - ongoing)

In 2013, REEF partnered with UC Davis' SeaDoc Society to begin annual monitoring in the San Juan Islands of Washington State at sites selected to represent Bottomfish Recovery Zones (BRZ) and Marine Protected Areas (MPA). The survey team is comprised of members of REEF's Pacific NW Advanced Assessment Team (AAT). Each year, 100+ surveys are gathered during one week in September/October. In 2019, the project expanded to include another location in the Salish Sea - Hornby Island (off Vancouver Island in British Columbia), and in 2021, South Puget Sound was added as a 3rd monitoring location.

These data have been important for tracking a variety of populations, including sea stars and sea urchins, which are monitored by REEF surveyors in temperate waters (along with fish). The impacts of mass mortality due to a sea star wasting disease throughout the Pacific Northwest beginning in 2013 has been evaluated using REEF data in several scientific publications, including:

Disease epidemic and a marine heat wave are associated with the continental-scale collapse of a pivotal predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides), Harvell et al, 2019

Devastating transboundary impacts of sea star wasting disease on subtidal asteroids, Montecino-Latorre et al, 2016

Evidence for a trophic cascade on rocky reefs following sea star mass mortality in British Columbia, Schultz​ et al. 2016

In 2020, the Sunflower Sea Star was declared Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). REEF data provided a significant source of information in forming the basis of this decision.


Species Snapshot - Florida: (2021 - ongoing)

The goal of the Species Snapshot project is to explore and gather baseline data on under-surveyed areas and alternative habitats along Florida's Coastlines.

During each Species Snapshot project, a team of Expert-level surveyors conduct REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project surveys at a collection of sites to capture the breadth of fish biodiversity in the area. The baseline data will help us monitor change in fish populations over time and identify biodiversity hotspots. Collecting these data with a team of experienced surveyors allows us to take a “biological snapshot” of each area up the coast. The project started in July 2021 at the north end of Key Largo, moving up the coast through Biscayne National Park, and extending through the habitats off the coast of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.


Goliath Grouper Population Study (2000 and 2021)

Goliath Grouper is one of the largest fishes found on a reef and can reach up to 8 feet long and 680 pounds of weight. (The International Game Fish Association Florida saltwater record is 680 pounds, caught May 20, 1961 off Fernandina Beach, Florida.). These gentle giants have been protected from harvest in Florida since 1990, and it has become extremely difficult to determine the status of the fishery stock. Traditional methods for determining the health of a normal fishery rely heavily on harvest rates. However, these data are no long available for Goliath Grouper because of their no-take status.

Sightings of Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) during REEF surveys in Florida have been a critical source of information for population studies of the species for the last several decades. The REEF database contains sightings of the fish since 1994. REEF survey data are proving to be extremely useful by not only providing the abundance but also the sighting location (latitude & longitude), temperature, reef type and other variables being used determine the status of the Goliath Grouper stock. These data are used to produce GIS maps that show the Goliath Grouper distribution over time and its recovery up the Florida peninsula.

In 2000, a study was initiated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS; Miami) in collaboration with Florida State University and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to evaluate the population because the continued protection of Goliath Grouper came under question. Without fisheries landing information, the Federal Fisheries Management Councils and the Florida FWC needed alternative data to help decide the ruling. REEF’s database, with over 300 confirmed Goliath Grouper sightings represents over half of the Goliath Grouper data available to scientists, was used as a basis to keep the fishery closed.

In 2021, the protections for Goliath Grouper again came under scrutiny, and FWC revisited opening up the fishery. Scientists from REEF and Scripps Institution of Oceanography undertook an updated analysis. Based on REEF data, it appears that Goliath Grouper experienced steady population growth in Florida from exceptionally low levels from the 1990s until 2010. However, over the last decade, this population recovery has either ceased or even reversed. Given the apparent stagnation or reversal in recovery for the species in recent years, any added fishing mortality will almost certainly precipitate population decline. The authors of this study therefore recommended to FWC at their May 2021 meeting that the moratorium on harvest for Goliath Grouper be continued.

See for more information and links to scientific papers.


Past REEF Monitoring and Assessment Projects

Annual Sub-tidal Monitoring in Three West Coast US National Marine Sanctuaries:

Monterey Bay NMS (2003 - 2015)

Olympic Coast NMS (2003 - 2017)

Channel Islands NMS (2000 - 2008)

In 2000, REEF initiated long-term monitoring at three of the US west coast National Marine Sanctuaries - Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS), Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). These annual projects each continued for many years. REEF surveys were conducted by the REEF Advanced Assessment Team at set locations within the sanctuaries, and these data complemented surveys collected year-round by REEF divers. The information collected served as a valuable information resource for Sanctuary managers working to protect these areas. In addition, the Channel Islands data were used to assist in the evaluation of no-take zones that were created in early 2003.

A complete and up-to-date summary of OCNMS data is posted here:,2901

A complete and up-to-date summary of MBNMS data is posted here:,4115,4116

A complete and up-to-date summary of CINMS data is posted here:,4203


A summary of the first 6 years of OCNMS assessments were presented at the 2009 Puget Sound and Georgia Basin Conference. A PDF of the poster is available for download - Sub-tidal Monitoring in the OCNMS: 2003-2008 (8MB)

A 15-year analysis of data from MBNMS were published in the journal CalCOFI in 2013, available for download here.


Vandenberg Monitoring (2009 - 2012 and 2014 - 2015)

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is a 523’ steel hulled missile tracking ship that was intentionally sunk seven miles off Key West, Florida, on May 27, 2009, to serve as a recreational diving and fishing artificial reef. The ship lies in 140’ of water; at its broadest point the deck is 71’ wide, creating habitat from 45’ to the sandy bottom. The Vandenberg is the largest artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the second largest in the world. The City of Key West, the Artificial Reefs of the Keys (ARK), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWC), and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) worked closely to obtain, clean, scuttle and sink the vessel, as well as raise funds for the effort. REEF was contracted by the FFWC to conduct a study with pre- and post-deployment monitoring of the fish assemblages associated with the Vandenberg and adjacent reef areas.

Prior to the sinking, REEF was contracted by the FWC to conduct a study with pre- and post-deployment monitoring of the fish assemblages associated with the Vandenberg and adjacent reef areas. The initial project was conducted between 2009 and 2012, and then a follow-up project was conducted in 2014 and 2015. Surveys were conducted by REEF's Advanced Assessment Team. The goals of this project were: To descriptively and comparatively quantify the fish assemblages over time at the Vandenberg and nearby artificial and natural reefs as a method to document changes as a result of increased habitat provided by the sinking of the Vandenberg. Additionally, efforts to document the occurrence of any non-native Report submitted in fulfilment of FWC Grant # 10149, marine fishes (including Lionfish, Pterois volitans), orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea), and titan acorn barnacles (Megabalanus coccopoma) were included to facilitate early detection and possible removal efforts with the FKNMS.


A summary report of the first year of monitoring is posted here. Between May 2009 and December 2010, 5 monitoring events were conducted. A total of 123 fish species was documented on the artificial reef a year following deployment.

The Year Two report summarizing 2011 monitoring is posted here

The Year Three report summarizing 2012 monitoring efforts (with additional summary from 2011) is posted here. 

The follow-up 2014 - 2015 project final report is posted here.


Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Zone Monitoring (1997 - 2007)

On July 1, 1997, a new management plan went into effect in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) that included a large-scale marine zoning plan with 23 no-take zones. These zones aim to protect the biological diversity and integrity of the marine environment in the Keys. Between 1997 and 2007, as part of the FKNMS Zone Monitoring Program, REEF conducted annual monitoring in the Sanctuary using its Advanced Assessment Team (AAT). The main purpose of REEF's project was to evaluate the effect of harvest restrictions on the fish assemblages at 16 no-take sites within the Sanctuary. The AAT conducted a minimum of 6 roving diver surveys at each no-take site, and at reference areas that are similar to the protected sites but where harvest has not been restricted. Monitoring is also being conducted at 6 sites in the Dry Tortugas.

Surveys conducted by the AAT complement the larger REEF dataset from the FKNMS. For more information on the FKNMS Zone Monitoring Program, visit the FKNMS Website.


2002 FKNMS Zone Monitoring Report (PDF)

2000 FKNMS Zone Monitoring Report (PDF)

1994-2001 Volunteer Reef Fish Monitoring Summary Report in the FKNMS (PDF)


Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary Assessment Project (2002 - 2006)

Between 2002 and 2006, REEF conducted a fish-monitoring program within Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS). The project uses the REEF Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) to conduct annual visual fish surveys within GRNMS. The surveys are conducted using the Roving Diver Technique (RDT) to measure species composition and estimate abundances. Beginning in 2004, REEF added a quantitative size-monitoring component for targeted species (black sea bass, Lutjanids and Serranids). The primary goals of this project are to 1) to provide GRNMS with a taxonomic inventory of fish species found within the Sanctuary as well as a dataset that can be used through time to measure spatial and temporal trends, 2) to assess the size structure and biomass of key targeted fish species within the GRNMS, 3) to complement the current stationary visual fish counts that have been conducted at GRNMS since 1995, and 4) to increase local and national awareness on the Sanctuary resources and give constituents a comparative fish data resource that can be used for the better management of GRNMS.

This project has provided a substantial increase of effort in the REEF database. Prior to the start of this project in 2002, there were only 18 surveys from the Sanctuary in the database. As of July 2006, there were over 300 surveys from GRNMS in the REEF database. Several new fish records for the Sanctuary have also resulted from the REEF project. A report summarizing the monitoring data from 2002 to 2006 is available for download.


Fish Assemblages in the Gray's Reef NMS: 2002-2006 (PDF; 2MB)


Wellwood Restoration Monitoring (2002 - 2007)

The M/V Wellwood, a 122-meter Cypriot-registered freighter, ran aground on August 4, 1984, on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida. The ship impacted the reef’s upper fore reef and remained aground for 12 days. The grounding destroyed 1,285 square meters of living corals and injured 644 square meters of coral reef framework. In an effort to restore habitat structure and stability to the grounding site, restoration began in May 2002. REEF was contracted by the National Marine Sanctuary Program to document recruitment of fishes onto the site as well as the subsequent changes, if any, to surrounding reefs sites.

REEF’s Advanced Assessment Team and Staff conducted the monitoring between 2002 and 2007. Both Roving Diver surveys and belt transect surveys were conducted at the Wellwood site and 2 adjacent natural reef sites. The effort documented species composition and abundance of all fish species encountered, as well as size and density structure of key fish species. A monitoring effort was conducted prior to restoration.  Monthly monitoring was then conducted after restoration for four months, quarterly monitoring for the remainder of Year 1, and yearly for Years 2 through 5. This provided temporal documentation of fish composition changes over time. The value of the information collected during this project aids in the assessment of restoration sites as effective replacements for natural habitat.


REEF Year One Wellwood Restoration Project Fish Monitoring Report (PDF)

Wellwood Restoration Project Fish Monitoring Five Year Final Report (PDF)

For more information on the Wellwood project and to view project reports:

Visit REEF's Wellwood Monitoring page


Spiegel Grove Monitoring (2002 - 2006)

The Spiegel Grove is a 510’ LSD (Dock Landing Ship) that was sunk as an artificial reef structure in the waters between Molasses Reef and Elbow Reef in Key Largo, Florida, in May 2002. The vessel is the largest ship ever intentionally scuttled to create an artificial reef. Pursuant to the permit received by the Upper Keys Artificial Reef Foundation (UKARF) to sink the ship in National Marine Sanctuary waters, a plan for pre-deployment and periodic monitoring was implemented. The UKARRF contracted REEF to conduct pre-deployment and periodic monitoring of the Spiegel Grove and adjacent natural and artificial reef sites. Monitoring will document fish presence/absence and relative abundance at 8 sites during 7 monitoring events in Year 1 and then bi-annually thereafter for four years. The primary goal of the monitoring will be to document changes within each of the 8 sites. In addition, comparisons between sites will be conducted to potentially detect correlations in patterns between sites.


REEF's Year One and Five-Year Spiegel Grove Monitoring Reports, submitted to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Monroe County, are available for download below.
REEF Year One Spiegel Grove Monitoring Report (PDF)

REEF Five Year Spiegel Grove Monitoring Report (PDF)

For more information on the Spiegel Grove project and to view project reports:

Visit REEF's Spiegel Grove Monitoring page


Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Annual Monitoring (1994 - 1998)

Between 1994 and 1999, REEF conducted annual Field Surveys to the Flower Garden Banks. In 1998, a paper comparing novice versus expert REEF data was published in the Journal of Gulf of Mexico Science by Pattengill-Semmens and Semmens, and the data used for the paper were from the annual FGB cruises. A PDF version of this paper is available on the REEF Publications page. In collaboration with the Sanctuary, REEF conducted an AGRRA survey at the Banks in 1999, and a summary report is available below.


Dry Tortugas National Park Monitoring (2001)

In the Fall of 2001, REEF was contracted by the National Park Service to conduct fish surveys at 18 sites within the Dry Tortugas National Park (DTNP). The monitoring was in response to the passage of an updated management plan for the park that implemented zoning including no-take areas. Surveys were conducted by a group of REEF staff and Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) members. The primary objective of the project was to establish a baseline of information on fish assemblages at the 18 sites in order to assist the park in the evaluation of the efficacy of the management zones once they are implemented. In addition to providing useful information, the involvement of volunteers in the assessment of park resources will improve constituent building and encourage a sense of ownership in DTNP resources by the public. This project complements a similar zone monitoring program that REEF conducted between 1997 and 2007 within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (see above). As part of the Sanctuary project, ten Dry Tortugas sites were surveyed annually.


2001 DTNP Final Report


Biscayne National Park - Inventory of Cryptic Fishes (2005 - 2006)

This goal of this project is to fully characterize the reef distribution and abundance in Biscayne National Park (BNP), with a specific focus on small and cryptic species. This two year project was initiated in the Spring of 2005, and includes a team of REEF experts conducting Roving Diver surveys for five days biannually. During each project, the team conducts fish surveys in eight different habitat types, including seagrasses, sand and rubble, mangrove channels, wrecks, and four different types of reefs. Between March, 2005 and September 2006 teams of REEF expert volunteers conducted 337 visual fish censuses at 158 sites among 9 habitat types within the Biscayne National Park (BNP) near Miami, Florida. 276 species were documented during the biannual surveys from 10,728 sightings records, adding 66 species to the BNP inventory list of fishes present in the park. Voucher specimens and photographs of those species previously undocumented in the BNP were collected and included in a museum collection. This effort resulted in significant increases to the BNP fish species list utilizing a cost effective, volunteer-based, non-extractive method. Because of the opportunity to survey in non-traditional habitats (and the opportunity to find rare species), this was one of our Advanced Assessment Team's favorite projects.


Final report on the BNP Inventory of Cryptic Fishes


Biogeography of Fishes in the Florida Keys

NOAA's Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment's (CCMA) Biogeography Program is currently working on a two-year project to use REEF fish data from the Florida Keys to evaluate the biogeography of living marine resources in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The spatial distribution of benthic habitats often mediates the effects of ecological processes (e.g. predation, competition, dispersal) that determines the distribution and abundance of tropical fishes. As such, this project will correlate benthic habitat variables with the distribution, abundance, and size of reef fishes within and outside management zones in the FKNMS. The first phase of this project was started in 1999 with mapping species' distributions. Reef fish composition and habitat parameters were then coupled to identify species habitat affinities. Correlation between benthic habitats and fish communities will be analyzed using a number of multivariate statistical techniques such as cluster correspondence and discriminant analyses.


The project was published as a NOAA Technical Report in February 2001

"Distribution and sighting frequency of reef fishes in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary" Technical Report (PDF)


Coastal Zone Management Program (2001 - 2002)

With funding from NOAA's Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program, REEF and The Ocean Conservancy coordinated four Fish and Benthic Monitoring Workshops in Puerto Rico, the USVI, and San Andres (Colombia) in 2001 and 2002. These week-long programs were targeted at local stakeholders and participation was free of charge through CZM funding sponsorship. The workshops featured classroom and field training in taxonomic identification of local fishes, corals, algae, and key invertebrates and in the survey methodologies of two volunteer monitoring programs, REEF's Fish Survey Project and The Ocean Conservancy’s Reef Ecosystem Condition Program (RECON). The purpose of the workshops are three-fold: 1) to enable a local corps of divers to provide on-going fish and benthic condition data for local reefs, 2) to collect a baseline of information on the fish populations of the area using a REEF Advanced Assessment Team, and 3) to establish and collect baseline data at RECON survey sites.


Summary reports on the workshops are available for download:

Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico Workshop Report (PDF)

San Andres, Colombia Workshop Report (PDF)

La Parguera, Puerto Rico Workshop Report (PDF)

St. Thomas Workshop Report (PDF)


Sustainable Seas Expedition (2001)

The Sustainable Seas Expedition (SSE) was a five-year project to explore the deeper regions of the National Marine Sanctuaries by submarine. It is headed by Dr. Sylvia Earle and is a partnership between the National Geographic and NOAA that is funded by the Goldman Family Fund. The subs, called Deepworker 2000, are one-person, unteathered subs capable of diving to 2,000 feet. Beginning with its first year of exploration in 1999, REEF's Executive Director at the time, Laddie Akins, participated in several missions at three of the Sanctuary sites and in Mexico. During his sub dives, Laddie conducted deep water fish surveys using a modified version of REEF's Roving Diver Technique. 


AGRRA (1999)

The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA) program is an international effort by scientists and managers aimed at determining the regional condition of coral reefs. A standardized protocol is used to measure the health of the reef using fish, corals, and algae. REEF's survey methodology and database are included as a component of the fish protocol. Therefore, REEF manages a portion of the AGRRA data collected by the research teams. In addition, in 1999, REEF staff and Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) members participated in five of the AGRRA expeditions- Andros, the Cayman Islands, the Flower Garden Banks, Saba/St. Marteen/St. Eustatia, and St. Croix. The data summary reports from these projects can be found in REEF's database at the Survey Index page.


Papers and reports have been produced by REEF for several of the expeditions and are available as .pdf files (click on the name to download the pdf file):

Flower Garden Banks | St. Croix (not available) | Cayman Islands


FWCC Artificial Reef Monitoring (1999 - 2001)

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) is Florida's principal environmental agency, and since 1980 it has coordinated an artificial reef program using manmade materials to attract and replenish fish stocks. The FWCC contracts with coastal counties to conduct ongoing monitoring studies of these artificial reefs.

In Fall 2003, REEF completed an assessment of 16 historical artificial reefs within Monroe County. The specific objective of the project is to evaluate and compare these 16 artificial reef sites and monitor them three times over the course of one year. The 16 sites are composed of bridge spans, concrete rubble, steel pipes, barge, and steel boats that were deployed in the 1980s. These sites were deployed when only loran coordinates, not GPS, was available. REEF is locating all 16 sites and obtaining accurate Differential GPS coordinates, conducting RDT fish surveys, and conducting a materials evaluations of each site.

A report with summaries and pictures for each of the 16 sites was compiled and provided to FWC.

Between 1999-2001, REEF conducted a training program to assist these local teams in standardizing their methodology and reporting scheme. Through this program, REEF trained several of these county teams in local fish identification and assisted the teams in adopting the REEF survey methodology. Implementing the REEF database will provide the State quick access to collected data and allow scientists to compare fish assemblages at the different artificial reef sites statewide.



In addition to the REEF Volunteer Survey Project, REEF staff coordinate two other marine conservation programs - the Grouper Moon Project and the Lionfish Invasion Research Program. These long-running programs have resulted in dozens of scientific papers and both provide valuable insight for resource managers and scientists aiming to recover endangered species and limit the impacts of invasive species. 

Grouper Moon Project

The Grouper Moon Project was initiated in the Winter of 2002 with an expedition to the Cayman Islands. The expedition’s objectives were to observe the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) spawning aggregation off the western tip of Little Cayman, and to develop a protocol for monitoring their numbers and activity at the site. For two weeks, a team of divers that included five REEF staff and volunteers and staff from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment visited the aggregation site and nearby reefs. Visit the Grouper Moon Project for more information and to view results and images of the spawning aggregation.

Exotic Species Sighting Program, including the Lionfish Invasion Research Program

The threat of exotic species to aquatic environments has gained attention in the media through cases such as the zebra mussel and lamprey in the Great Lakes and Caulerpa taxifolia algae (AKA the killer algae) in California. Incidences of exotic marine fish species have not been widely reported until recently. Recreational divers and snorkelers are a valuable source of information for tracking exotic fish species because they are looking, taking notice of rare things and often know what doesn't belong. In 2002, REEF launched its Exotic Species Sighting Program. Sightings data are used to track exotic species introductions, document populations that appear to be spreading, and serve as an early warning system to hopefully prevent harmful impacts to the native ecosystem. In 2007 REEF initiated research and outreach specifically on the invasion of the Indo-Pacific Lionfish into the western Atlantic.

Visit the Exotic & Invasive Species Program to learn more about the threat of exotic and invasive species to aquatic environments. You can view general project information, publications and learn indepth information about the Lionfish Research Program.

In the West Coast Pacific region, REEF volunteers also monitor the presence and spread of three invasive tunicates. A summary of sightings to date were presented at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Conference in 2009. A PDF of the poster is available for download - Volunteer Divers Monitor the Presence and Spread of Invasive Tunicates in the Pacific Northwest, a poster presented at the 2009 Puget Sound Georgia Basin Conference (8MB