While paddling we easily observe the natural environment above water but life below is often less clear. We do know it’s an amazing world of immense bio-diversity that constantly surprises with new discoveries. But it’s not just scientists doing the research, citizen science is making a huge contribution to research. Reef Life Survey (RLS) is a non-profit citizen science program based in Hobart and we asked Toni Cooper to explain how volunteers are helping expand our marine knowledge.
The RLS program began at the end of 2007 with a grant from the Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities (CERF) Program. In 2011 the co-founders, Dr Rick Stuart-Smith and Prof Graham Edgar, established the Reef Life Survey Foundation as a not-for-profit Australian organisation. The aim, and successful outcome, was to show that engaged volunteer divers could be trained to collect fish and mobile macro invertebrate species-level information at a high, scientific standard. Eleven years later, we have over 13,000 surveys from 53 countries around the world, including Antarctica!
Rigorously quality controlled RLS data goes into an IMAS database (https://reeflifesurvey.com/survey-data/) where it’s freely available and used by other scientists and to inform managers and decision makers on the changes occurring in our marine environment.
It also builds greater public knowledge and provides resources like the Reef Species of the World database for marine enthusiasts. Here, users can filter and search for over 5000 fish and macro-mobile invertebrate species from around the world. You can even generate a species list for a particular area and order it by how common species are in that area, filter by taxonomy or by location and you can even compare similar species and view different life stages or colour variations of species (where we have images available).
RLS data have also been used in over 70 scientific publications, seven of these have been published in the prestigious journals Nature and Science. A list of RLS papers and reports can be found here.
More recently, two Reef Life Survey indicators have been formally accepted by the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership for reporting on global biodiversity targets. This has been exceptional (and humbling) recognition of the quality and quantity of the data collected by RLS divers and international partners and its relevance to international policies and agreements.
In 2018, RLS divers discovered a new population of what could arguably be the world’s rarest fish, the Red handfish (Thymichthys politus)! For nearly 10 years, RLS divers have been monitoring red handfish and their habitat by conducting surveys and specialised searches at key historical locations, and it was thought that numbers could have been as low as just 20 individuals. This discovery gives hope there may be other undiscovered populations. More importantly it has facilitated crucial research into the ecology and biology of the species so that scientists can better understand how to conserve and protect it.
RLS also provided the information to support the red handfish’s listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list as Critically Endangered (yet to be published). Read more on the Red handfish and how the public can help - https://handfish.org.au/species-overview/
Yes! Although RLS HQ is in Hobart, ironically a lot of our survey effort has had a heavy focus on other locations around Australia. This is mainly due to Tasmania already having an IMAS-supported, long-term monitoring program whose methods form the basis for RLS. Our divers have still been lucky enough to survey some of Tasmania’s finest coastlines, including our very first RLS training expedition on Flinders Island, the unique and remote Port Davey/Bathurst Harbour region and Rocky Cape on the State’s northwest coast. (See https://reeflifesurvey.com/species/search.php for locations)
Due to the efforts and costs required, both from divers and trainers, we train up the keenest and most dedicated of the recreational dive community when we can. The minimum eligibility requirements are around dive experience to ensure diver safety but these are not usually an issue for most marine underwater enthusiasts!
Even if you’re not a diver, there are many other ways in which people can assist the RLS program – volunteers can give their time, funds, resources or voice to Reef Life Survey and help continue to provide valuable information on the state of our marine environment to managers, scientists and the public. For more information on volunteering, see https://reeflifesurvey.com/how-to/.
Toni Cooper is Programs Manager and Data Officer at the Reef Life Survey: Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS)