Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Fish Survey Project

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Christy Pattengil-Semens
    Reef Environmental Education Foundation
Start Date: June 07, 1997

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)ís Fish Survey Project enlists SCUBA divers to collect meaningful data that can be used to help facilitate prudent management on marine habitats. Through this ongoing citizen-science monitoring program, volunteers conduct visual fish surveys along the coastal areas of North and Central America, the Caribbean, and Hawaii, including eight National Marine Sanctuaries.

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.

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.

They found that fish surveys conducted using the REEF roving diver method meet several objectives:

1. Ability to collect large quantities of presence/absence and relative abundance data;

2. Indication of species distribution throughout a geographical area based on sighting frequency and abundance;

3. Specific species presence/absence and abundance lists may be presented for any given region, subregion, zone or site; and

4. Measures of similarity in species composition may be computed between any combination of geographical areas.

Summary to Date

REEF volunteers, trained to work as citizen scientists, have conducted nearly 3500 surveys in MBNMS since 1997. These divers have documented 171 fish species and monitored 57 invertebrate and algae species. In addition to important fishery species such as rockfish and greenling, the divers have documented rare species such as the masked prickleback and the cryptic kelp gunnel.

REEF has an online database and provides summary data by geographic zone. To see some of the results from northern and central California, go to: this link.

The REEF data can be used in a variety of applications, including evaluating the effects of no-take zones, conducting fisheries-independent stock assessments, identifying areas with especially large varieties of fish and monitoring populations of non-native fish species, as well as understanding species distribution and patterns of abundance. For example, Figure 3 shows the distribution map of black rockfish based on REEF data in the MBNMS between 1997 and 2004.

After the dive, the information is uploaded by the diver using an web-based form that has several built-in QAQCs. Summary data reports are available via REEFís website at this link.

Each survey record contains full metadata, including location, surveyor, survey time and date, etc. REEF volunteers conduct surveys during their regular diving activities, as well as during organized field surveys. Surveyors are categorized by experience level based on survey experience and scores on identification exams.

Monitoring Trends

  • Blue rockfish (Sebastes mystinus) and Painted greenlings (Oxylebius pictus) are the most commonly sighted fish species in Northern California REEF surveys. See Figure 1 for more information.

  • REEF uses a diversity report to summarize the number of fish species observed by divers in a particular geographic zone. In California, the region between Davenport and Point Lobos has the highest diversity (242 species), and the second highest is 209 species between Dana Point and La Jolla.

  • Within Monterey Bay, the Breakwater has the highest diversity (160 species) but this is also the most popular site to conduct REEF surveys (390 as of June 2012). The next top 20 sites have from 90 - 119 species of fishes.

Study Parameters

  • Abundance
  • Diversity
  • Distribution

Study Methods

During RDT surveys, divers swim freely throughout a dive site and record every observed fish species that can be positively identified. 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. Any sea turtle species seen during your dive should also be marked.

At the conclusion of each survey, 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)].

Figures and Images

Figure 1. Sighting frequency for the top twenty species surveyed in Northern California (%SF = Sighting Frequency; DEN = Density Score).

Figure 2. Map of REEF survey areas in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Figure 3. Distribution and abundance of black rockfish, using REEF data.

REEF surveyor recording the presence of a lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus). Photo: Kirby Johnson.