What is the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project?

REEF's mission, to educate and enlist divers in the conservation of marine habitats, is accomplished primarily through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project. The Project was developed in 1990 with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and guidance by the Southeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The project allows volunteer SCUBA divers and snorkelers to collect and report information on marine fish populations as well as selected invertebrate and algae species in temperate reef areas (West Coast of the US and Canada, the South Atlantic States, and the Northeast US & Eastern Canada). The data are collected using a fun and easy standardized method, and are housed in a publicly-accessible database on REEF's Website. These data are used by a variety of resource agencies and researchers. To find out more about the REEF Invertebrate & Algae Monitoring Program, click here.

How do I access the database and summary reports?

All data collected by REEF volunteers is returned to REEF and entered into our database. This database is accessible online, via this Webpage, and a variety of reports can be generated. A summary report can be generated for a given location or region, with data on all species that have been documented there. Distribution reports can be generated for a specific species or family. And you can view your own lifelist of fish sightings using your REEF member ID number. To visit the REEF database, click here.

For more information on the types of data collected and how to interpret the data summary reports, click here.

If you are a researcher interested in raw data files for analysis, please contact our Director of Science at data@REEF.org.

How do I conduct a REEF survey?

To collect data for the Project, REEF volunteers use the Roving Diver Technique (RDT), a visual survey method specifically designed for volunteer data. The only materials needed are an underwater slate and pencil, a good reference book, and access to the internet to submit the data online. REEF has developed several survey materials that make things easy, including pre-formated underwater paper and waterproof ID guides. These supplies, as well as slates, pencils, and training courses are avilable through REEF's Online Store.

The Roving Diver Survey Method

During RDT surveys, divers swim freely throughout a dive site and record every observed fish species that can be positively identified. Species and approximate abundance scores are recorded on an underwater slate. The search for fishes begins as soon as the diver enters the water. The goal is to find as many species as possible so divers are encouraged to look under ledges and up in the water column. In some regions, sea turtle species seen during your dive should also be marked. More about the Sea Turtle Program.

Each recorded species is assigned one of four abundance categories based on about how many were seen throughout the dive [single (1); few (2-10), many (11-100), and abundant (>100)].

Click here to view a short instructional video of the REEF survey method.

You can also visit this very informative tutorial page written by one of REEF's regional partners: the Pacific Northwest Scuba tutorial webpage. Even though this was written for surveyors in the Pacific Northwest, the information is valid for all of REEF's regions.

Submitting your data

Following the dive, each surveyor transfers the information about their survey dive, including survey time, depth, temperature, and other environmental information, along with the species sightings data, to the REEF database.

Information is submitted one of two ways:

The location of the survey is recorded using the common dive site name and the REEF Geographic Zone Code. The Zone Codes are a hierarchical list of codes. A separate survey submission is done for each dive. For more information on the REEF Data Entry process,visit the Online Q&A page.

Can I still use Scantron forms?

Optically-read scantron forms were used by REEF volunteers to submit data from the early days of the program in 1993 until the creation of online entry in 2008. REEF continued to accept scanforms for about 10 years. In 2017, REEF phased out the processing of scantron forms for data entry. Surveyors are advised to enter data from any remaining scanforms using our online data entry form (assisted with offline data entry program if needed). 

When and where are surveys conducted?

REEF surveys are conducted as part of a diver's regular diving activities; anytime they are in the water.

REEF surveys can be conducted in any of REEF's Project areas:

  • Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA; Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, and Gulf of Mexico), 
  • South Atlantic States (SAS; Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina)
  • Northeast US & Canada (NE; Virginia through Newfoundland)
  • Eastern Atlantic & Mediterranean (EAM; Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, and Mediterranean)
  • West Coast of the United States and Canada (PAC; California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia)
  • Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP; Gulf of California to the Galapagos Islands).
  • Hawaiian Islands (HAW)
  • South Pacific (SOP; Fiji, Samoan Archipelago, Line Islands, Cook Islands)
  • Central Indo-Pacific (CIP; Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Australia, Philippines)
  • Indian Ocean-Red Sea (IORS; Bay of Bengal, Maldives, Red Sea, East Coast of Africa, Madagascar and Indian Ocean Islands)

Each project area has different dataentry, training, and survey materials.

What happens to the survey after it's submitted?

The information goes through a series of computer and human error-checks. For data submitted online, this can take several weeks. If submitted by paper scantron form, the processing time is much longer, several months. After the quality control checks, the survey data are loaded into REEF's online database. From this database, a variety of reports can be generated on species distribution and population trends, for a specific reef or large geographic regions.

What are the different levels of surveyor experience?

REEF fish survey data are separated into two categories based on experience level- Novice and Expert. These experience levels are determined by number of surveys completed and examination scores. Click here to read more about these experience levels.

How do I interpret the data and the reports?

Roving diver survey data generate a species list along with sighting frequency and abundance estimates for each species. Click here for information on interpreting these frequency and abundance estimates.

Are the data accurate and useful?

 Yes! From the beginning, the program was designed in conjunction with marine scientists from NOAA, the University of Miami, and The Nature Conservancy. For over two years, a team of marine ecologists and fisheries managers monitored and carefully evaluated REEF's field methods and reporting procedures. Their study, published in the Bulletin of Marine Science in 1996, confirmed that the collected data are of extreme value to the scientific community. They found that fish surveys conducted using the REEF roving diver method meet several objectives:

  • Ability to collect large quantities of presence/absence and relative abundance data
  • Indication of species distribution throughout a geographical area based on sighting frequency and abundance
  • Specific species presence/absence and abundance lists may be presented for any given region, subregion, zone or site
  • Measures of similarity in species composition may be computed between any combination of geographical areas

Today, marine ecologists from NOAA, the State of Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas government environmental protection offices, marine park management, and conservation groups are already putting information from REEF's database to good use.

What are the data used for?

As the REEF Fish Survey Project has grown, several papers and products have been produced using the roving diver survey method and the REEF database. For a complete list, visit the Publications page. In addition, the REEF Fish Survey Project has become integrated into several projects. These collaborations have included those with management agencies and other non-profit organizations. To read more about these papers and projects and about using volunteers in data collection, visit our Monitoring and Research page.

Why collect fish survey data?

Once you start conducting fish surveys, your diving experience will change. Suddenly you will start to notice things on your dives that have always been there, but the difference is that now you will know them. You will realize when a species you encounter is a great find, and who are the usual suspects. Another reason - it allows you to participate, become a scientist, become an explorer. It gives you a voice to make a difference. We hope you will use it.

Are other animals included besides fish?

While the main focus of REEF's program is marine fish, we also survey select invertebrates and algae in our temperate water regions: Pacific Northwest, California, South Atlantic States, the Northeast US & Eastern Canada, and the Eastern Atlantic & Mediterranean.

Sea turtles are reported in all of REEF's regions - Sea Turtle Sighting Program.

REEF Database Citation

Please cite REEF's Database as:REEF. year. Reef Environmental Education Foundation Volunteer Fish Survey Project Database. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.REEF.org, date of download (day month year).

Contact REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, to request raw data files.