Long-term data are key to understanding how species, communities, and habitats change over time. Citizen science programs can support data collection at greater spatial and temporal scales than other types of scientifically collected data which tend to be project-specific and are often tied to short funding periods. This is particularly true for environments that are difficult to sample such as subtidal ecosystems. Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) citizen science SCUBA surveyors have been collecting fish, invertebrate, and algae data in British Columbia since 1998. This study demonstrates how citizen science data from REEF can be used to answer scientific questions via case studies, the first on Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) population responses to management decisions and the second on detecting rockfish species (Sebastes spp.) young-of-year abundance pulses. The results of these case studies suggest that data from REEF, despite limitations, can be used to improve our understanding of nearshore marine ecosystems.
The Salish Sea in Washington and British Columbia is home to hundreds of fish species, and REEF citizen scientists play an important role in documenting and monitoring the health of fish populations in this biologically diverse region. This paper shows that the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project helped monitor more than half of the total fish species known to occur in the Salish Sea. Furthermore, REEF surveyors 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).
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, which reported on 261 known fish species from the Salish Sea. 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 diver. REEF divers sighted 85% of fish species that lend themselves to visual observation. For these fishes, experienced citizen scientists can expand what scientists know about range, life history, population status, size, age, behavior, and more.
Early life history stages of fish have been shown to be sensitive to environmental changes. Given predicted changes in the coming century to the world’s tropical oceans, it is important to characterize how these changes will affect growth and survival of species with commercial and ecological importance. The Grouper Moon Project team has been conducting preliminary research on early life history of Yellowfin Grouper (Mycteroperca venenosa) with eggs and larvae collected from a Yellowfin Grouper spawning aggregation on Little Cayman, Cayman Islands, adjacent to the larger Nassau Grouper aggregation that is the primary focus of the Grouper Moon Project. Findings on Yellowfin Grouper growth and condition of eggs and larvae reared in varying temperature regimes was presented at the 2022 American Fisheries Society conference. From these baseline characterizations, we can inform future studies to better understand how a warming ocean will affect the species.
As part of the Grouper Moon Project in Little Cayman, Cayman Island, this study used the sound produced by Nassau Grouper, Red Hind, Black Grouper, and Yellowfin Grouper to monitor the positions of these fish during the Nassau grouper spawning event that occurred in 2017. By using fish sound recorded by multiple instruments, we were able to monitor the presence and location of these fish before, during, and after the spawning. These continuous and overnight records added valuable observations to the limited period of times when divers are able to survey the area. Knowing the locations of the fish, it was possible to measure how loud these fish sounds are and determine how far they may be detected. The authors found that Nassau Grouper sounds were the loudest and may be detectable up to 300 m at this location. Additionally, the timing and locations of sound production suggest that there is no Nassau spawning events that occur during the night, but there may be overlap in space and time between Red Hind and Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations.
First sighted in Lebanon in 2012, invasive lionfish have since become well-established in the Mediterranean Sea. In an effort to provide policy recommendations for the lionfish invasion within the Mediterranean Sea, REEF joined in a global collaborative effort with researchers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean to share successes and failures from two decades of lionfish management in the Western Atlantic. As a result of this work, a paper titled "Lessons from the Western Atlantic lionfish invasion to inform management in the Mediterranean” was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Invasive lionfish control will require rapid and strategic management approaches, multinational coordination and broad cooperation among and between governments and stakeholders. The infographic (above) accompanying this article details some of the recommended and failed approached for lionfish management. Lessons for invasive lionfish management identified in the paper include:
• Conducting routine removals by spearfishing with scuba can effectively suppress local abundances of lionfish
• Encouraging the development of recreational and commercial lionfish fisheries can facilitate sustainable lionfish population control
• Engaging local communities can help achieve lionfish removals, market-development, research, and public education.
The authors also advised against failed approaches such as feeding lionfish to native fish to promote predation and implementing bounty programs to incentivize lionfish harvest. A detailed table of lionfish management strategies in both the Western Atlantic and Mediterranean was compiled by REEF staff to support the article and can be found here.
East Pacific Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) have undergone substantial population recovery over the last two decades because of comprehensive protection at nesting beaches and foraging areas. Starting in 2014 in southern California (United States), at the northern end of their range, Green Sea Turtles have been seen in more areas and in greater numbers. A resident population of Green Sea Turtles has established near La Jolla Shores (off San Diego Country), a protected site with daily marine tourism (e.g., kayakers, snorkelers, divers). The REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project, a global citizen science marine life monitoring program, has included sea turtle sightings since 2001. The REEF dataset from San Diego, CA, was used as one of several sources of information to study this local population of sea turtles. This paper summarizes the authors' findings. The study is the first to look at the apparent behaviors and condition of Green Sea Turtles observed in the La Jolla Shores area and the first to provide information about Green Sea Turtle distribution throughout southern California based on opportunistic sightings by the general public.
The impacts of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles) on native coral reef populations in the Western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea can be enormous. However, how much lionfish differ from native predators and whether their effects outweigh the abundant mesopredators that occupy many reefs invite continued examination. The authors of this paper present empirical evidence from Caribbean Panama and beyond, suggesting that lionfish are less abundant than native mesopredators (e.g. small seabass). In addition, their findings show that direct impacts by lionfish and Graysby, a native mesopredator, on survivorship and size distributions of one native prey species (Masked Goby) are similar. The authors used REEF data collected from sites throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Western Atlantic from 2010-2015 to test whether lionfish were less common than Graysby. By leveraging the citizen-science dataset collected by REEF volunteers, the authors were able to evaluate the impacts of native and non-native mesopredators across a much broader geographic region and longer time period than otherwise possible based solely on surveys conducted as part of their field work, which were limited to just one year in Caribbean Panama. REEF data substantially enhanced the evidence used to show that lionfish tended to be much less common than Graysby over the 6-year period. The findings of this paper will help guide lionfish management and control, and provides support for synergies between conservation actions aimed both at the invasion and other consequential problems such as overexploitation and climate change.
Designing effective local management for invasive species poses a major challenge for conservation, yet factors affecting intervention success and efficiency are rarely evaluated and incorporated into practice. As part of a multi-year study with funding from NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and others, REEF and partners coordinated regional efforts by divers to cull invasive lionfish (Pterois spp.) on 33 U.S. Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean protected coral reefs from 2013 to 2019. During each effort, the researchers estimated removal efficiency and efficacy as a function of environmental and habitat conditions, invasion status, and personnel expertise. Highly experienced individuals culling during crepuscular periods (2 hr from sunrise/sunset) are three times more efficient (in terms of minutes) than novice divers during midday, suggesting: (a) retention of experienced individuals is key for efficient programs, and (b) planning culls with personnel and time of day in mind increases the number of sites covered with the same effort. Lionfish behavior and habitat characteristics had little effect on removal efficiency and efficacy, but divers had higher capture success at reefs with higher lionfish densities. The authors suggest reefs with persistently low densities of lionfish be given low priority for management efforts, given that impacts to native fauna are unlikely and culling effectiveness declines to <50% below this level. Incorporating efficiency factors in spatial management planning along with estimates of lionfish density can help ensure that limited resources for control are extended across a greater range of invaded habitats.
Fish usually need to be caught to be measured, but scientists from the Grouper Moon Project and Cayman Islands government have used video camera systems to collect an impressive 17-year dataset of Nassau Grouper lengths from Little Cayman. We combined this with information on growth and abundance to produce a comprehensive assessment of Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman. We found that Nassau Grouper recovered on Little Cayman largely thanks to one strong year class from 2011 spawning, 4-8x average. Length data from Cayman Brac also showed signs of a strong 2011 year class and substantial improvement in population status in recent years. Our analysis demonstrates that video camera systems are effective for monitoring protected fish spawning aggregations and are especially promising for situations where catch, effort, and invasive length data are unavailable.
With 15,000 tube feet and up to 24 arms, the magnificent Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) is found from Baja Mexico to Alaska. Since 2013, this magnificent species has suffered a dramatic decline due to a wasting disease. Many fear that the species may be on the brink of extinction. To quantify the decline and possibly establish grounds for protections and intervention, REEF joined in a partnership of more than 60 institutions led by The Nature Conservancy and Oregon State University. REEF provided data collected through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project to help establish whether the Sunflower Sea Star warranted listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species. REEF shared data from 32,517 REEF surveys conducted at hundreds of sites between California and Alaska from 1998 to 2019, which included 18,035 records of the Sunflower Sea Star. Thanks to the efforts of our volunteer surveyors, REEF was able to contribute almost a third of the data used in the IUCN assessment.
The analysis found a 90.6% decline in the species. The resulting report was issued to the IUCN in fall 2020 and in December of that year, it was announced that the Sunflower Sea Star was placed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, just one step below extinction. The decline has had cascading impacts on the marine environment. Sunflower Sea Stars are a main predator of sea urchins, whose populations have now exploded in many regions. Higher numbers of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, has led to “urchin barrens” and a significant decline in kelp forest ecosystems.