Citizien Scientists of REEF Fish Get Their Due

Black grouper in a field of Thalassia testudinum, Exumas / Bahamas (c) SML

Chris Stallings of Oregon State University published a paper in PLOS One this past week that took a close look at predatory fish populations in Caribbean coral reef habitats over varying levels of human population density (and resulting impact from so-called artisanal fishing). The findings are consistent with reports that we’ve seen before: where there are lots of people there is considerable impact on large predator populations.

So why bother to note this paper? Well, Stallings used a rather ground-breaking method in marine circles to get to this conclusion. Instead of surveying for Caribbean large-bodied predators in a small area (and extrapolating with a model) or using historical data he relied on a publicly-accessible database generated by citizen scientists – in this case trained volunteers on SCUBA working with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s Fish Survey Project. (REEF is the same foundation leading the lionfish neighborhood watch in the Keys I’ve written about previously.)

As Stallings writes:

“On a global scale 37% of human populations live within 100 km of a coastline [87]. As human populations continue to increase, the associated negative effects on coastal ecosystems are not likely to be easily resolved. Continued efforts at broad spatial scales are necessary to better understand individual and interactive effects of anthropogenic activities on marine ecosystems [19], [39], [88], [89]. If we are to overcome the challenges of collecting data in developing nations and on a region-wide scale, these studies will require multiple disciplinary approaches [90] including publicly available survey data collected by citizen scientists and other community volunteers.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more. As researchers’ grants become more restrictive and field studies become harder to conduct we might need to rely on volunteer-generated data. Giving citizen scientists’ work its due credit could be a powerful thing for the future of conservation (so long as the collection of that data is conducted properly, of course.) The best thing such studies can do is add a much needed element of authority and respect to the work that thousands of people around the world commit themselves to without a PhD or a paycheck.

PS: Want to help REEF survey for lionfish? They’re asking for volunteers.