Home to hundreds of fish species, the Salish Sea in Washington and British Columbia is one of the most biologically diverse inland seas in the world. According to a recent study pubished in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, REEF citizen scientists play an important role in documenting and monitoring the health of fish populations in the Salish Sea. In fact, citizen scientists who conducted surveys as part of the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project helped monitor more than half of the total fish species known to occur in the Salish Sea. REEF surveyors also expanded the known range of multiple species within the ecosystem and documented the presence of a fish species not previously known to occur in the Salish Sea, the Striped Kelpfish (Gibbonsia metzi), bringing the total number of fish species known to use the Salish Sea to 261.

The research was led by SeaDoc Society. SeaDoc has partnered with REEF for almost two decades to help train volunteer divers in the Pacific Northwest. REEF citizen scientists have been surveying the Salish Sea since 1998. The study was also informed by a list of species published by fisheries biologists Theodore Pietsch and James Orr. The authors compared data from 13,000 REEF surveys collected from about 800 sites in the Salish Sea over 21 years (1998-2019). Volunteers observed 138 of the 261 species and expanded the range of 18 species, meaning they were spotted in an area of the Salish Sea where they previously had not been documented to exist.

Not all fish species have an equal chance of being spotted by a scuba diver. Some might live hundreds of feet deep, expertly hide themselves, or only rarely venture into the Salish Sea. The authors took this into account and categorized each fish based on its potential for encounter by a recreational diver. Based on these parameters, REEF surveyors sighted 85% of fish species that lend themselves to visual observation. This helps demonstrate the power of citizen science and shows that experienced surveyors can expand what scientists know about range, life history, population status, size, age, behavior, and more.

“I had so much fun exploring the REEF database and published compilation of Salish Sea fishes,” said lead author Elizabeth Ashley, a UC Davis research assistant with SeaDoc Society. “This study highlights that the incredible biodiversity of the Salish Sea merits the use of a diverse set of tools, wielded by both professional and citizen scientists, to fully understand and protect these fishes.”

The full citation of the paper is: Ashley, EA, CV Pattengill-Semmens, JW Orr, JD Nichols, and JK Gaydos. 2022. Documenting Fishes in an Inland Sea with Citizen Scientist Diver Surveys: using taxonomic expertise to inform the observation potential of fish species. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 194, 227 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-022-09857-1.

To see a full list of scientific papers that have included REEF data and projects, visit www.REEF.org/db/publications.

Special thanks to SeaDoc Society for providing the press release and content for this article.