Volunteering for REEF

If you've taken a Fish Identification specialty, you've probably heard of REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. REEF tackles an interesting problem, understanding and protecting marine life, by allowing recreational divers the opportunity to get involved.

REEF was founded in 1990 when its founders realized the increasing threats faced by marine populations. Despite these threats, the scientific community lacked the resources to collect the data needed to combat the problem. By tapping into recreational divers' affinity for sea life, REEF vastly increases the available amount of resources.

The primary way in which divers help is by surveying fish populations. During a regular dive, the diver simply takes notes on the types and numbers of fish seen. This data is then sent in to REEF, where it is used to increase the knowledge base needed by marine scientists, conservationists, and resource managers.

Note that REEF currently only operates in the coastal regions of North and Central America, the Caribbean, and Hawaii.

Getting started

Interested in getting involved? The first step is to become a REEF member. Membership is free and includes a unique ID number, website login, and a newsletter subscription (annual by mail, monthly by email) that keeps you abreast of developments in the REEF community.

Next, you'll need to brush up on your fish identification skills. You're not expected to know every fish, but being able to identify a decent number of fish makes the data you collect all the more useful. See The Diving Blog's fish identification series for a continual source of learning.

There are a few ways besides self study to learn fish. There are fish identification specialty courses. These will cover the basics of fish families and may involve a few dives to try it out. There are fish identification seminars at REEF field stations---check the website for more information. REEF staff also organize field-survey trips as a hands-on method of learning.

Collecting data

Once you're ready to collect data, there's not much left to do. You are welcome to join the aforementioned field-survey trips or survey fish during a dive of your own.

During a dive, REEF recommends what is called the Roving Diver Technique (RDT). This technique is based around the idea that you don't modify your dive in any way, but simply mark types and quantities of fish as they are encountered.

This information is collected on specialized slates with waterproof forms specific to the region being surveyed. On it, you will mark the species of fish seen and the abundance: "Single" for one fish, "Few" for two to 10, "Many" for 11 to 100, and "Abundant" for over 100.

When you don't recognize a species, you can sketch it on the slate, taking note of distinguishing features.

Afterwards, you'll transfer this data to a special scanform (freely available from the REEF store) and send it to REEF headquarters, where it is catalogued and made part of the database.

For fun, REEF has levels of certification based on number of surveys completed and various quizzes that can be taken.

I have yet to collect a survey, but it's something I'd be interested in doing. If you're looking to add some purpose to your diving, or if you feel like things have stagnated for you, this could be an interesting way to renew your interest. Sign up and get some scanforms---you're under no obligation to complete them. Try it out once and see how you like it. You may be surprised.