The Volunteer Fish Survey Project is REEF’s cornerstone citizen science program, and was the foundation of the organization’s inception. The goal of the program is to enlist divers and snorkelers to report fishes they see during their time in the water; documenting status and trends much in the way birdwatchers do for birds. The first REEF surveys were conducted in 1993 by a few dozen volunteers in the waters off Key Largo, Florida. The program has grown significantly, with more than 16,000 volunteers participating and 230,000 REEF surveys conducted at sites around the world.
Our most recent geographic expansion is to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, a vast and diverse area of marine life. To kick off the expansion, REEF's Director of Science led REEF Field Survey Trips to the Maldives in January and Oman in April. Each location offered an amazing experience for both new and seasoned REEF surveyors! The divers saw many species familiar to them based on previous experience in the tropical Pacific. There were also many new sightings, including species restricted to the Indian Ocean or those only found in a specific location. The latter was particularly true in Oman, where surveyors found several fish endemic to Oman, including the spectacular Two-faced Toadfish and the Oman Anemonefish. Another favorite sighting was the Stars and Stripes Snakelet, living in a specialized habitat under sea urchins.
The survey data from the Maldives has been submitted, processed, and is now available through REEF’s publicly-accessible database. As a group, the team conducted 379 fish surveys and reported 549 fish species. (Check out the summary here.) The Oman trip concluded in early May, and the team is currently working to finalize and submit their surveys. This can be a lengthy process, especially in a newly-pioneered area like Oman, where there are a lot of mystery fishes and even likely undescribed, new-to-science species. In these cases, we often consult with fish taxonomists and ID experts to help us resolve some of our mysteries.
So why is this work important? Ocean ecosystems are facing increasing threats, and marine life populations and biodiversity are changing at dramatic rates. As REEF continues to expand the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, we are building on a critical global database that can be used to better understand and hopefully mitigate these threats. By engaging the public through citizen science, we are enabling everyone to become part of the solution. The support of our donors and the involvement of our passionate team of surveyors makes this work possible, and we are excited for the future of the Volunteer Fish Survey Project.