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You are here: Home / Manager's Tool Kit / Early Detection and Rapid Response / The Early Detectives / R.E.E.F. Exotic Species Sighting Program: Reef Environmental Education Foundation
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Early Detection and Rapid Response

The Early Detectives: How to Use Volunteers Against Invasive Species, Case Studies of Volunteer Early Detection Programs in the U.S.

R.E.E.F. Exotic Species Sighting Program: Reef Environmental Education Foundation

Contacts: Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D., Scientific Coordinator
E-mail: Christy@reef.org
Phone: (206) 529-1240

Overview and Success

R.E.E.F. is a non-profit organization based in Key Largo, Florida, that officially began in 1990, though the idea and need for such an organization was identified much earlier. The many goals of this grassroots effort include conducting volunteer surveys of marine life and making the collected data available to resource managers and marine scientists. A systematic effort of well-trained volunteers can gather data that is broad in geographical scope and which covers a long time period. The data offers scientists a glance at spatial and temporal changes in populations that they would not have had the time or resources to study themselves. To date over 11,000 fish surveys have been completed and returned to R.E.E.F., and the number is increasing every day. This program did not base itself on any specific list of fishes or exotic aquatic organisms. Instead the divers simply report on anything that they see, using the "Roving Diver Technique," and this data is housed in a publicly accessible database on REEF's Web site.

The Exotic Species Sighting Program began about one year ago. It attempts to utilize the existing channels and resources presented in the form of these divers. The scientific coordinator for the program, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, stated, "a few years ago they began to notice that more and more reports of non-native fish species were turning up." The most concentrated sightings were along the east coast of Florida. Standard diving instruction teaches a student everything but what they are there to see in the first place, and so, "R.E.E.F. teaches divers about what they are seeing. Subsequently, they stay in the sport and become advocates for protecting the resources."

This program has been overwhelmingly successful. This again is due to its vast numbers of volunteers. Christy stated that there are currently roughly about 24,000 volunteers based in the R.E.E.F. program. Of these, she stated that there were probably about 5,000 active volunteers with the program, and there have been dozens of reports thus far about the locations of exotic invaders. Christy said that one of the major successes of the program this year has been identifying the hotspot of non-native species off the Eastern Shore of Florida. There are two counties in particular, Broward and Palm Beach that have been identified as problem areas as a direct result of the data collected by volunteers, and on one occasion the data of the volunteers actually led to the attempted control of an invasive fish in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary.

Recruitment and Training

This program "was perhaps a bit different than other volunteer-based early detection programs because there was already a wide cadre of people involved in other R.E.E.F. monitoring volunteer programs that could be educated to also look for specific exotic species." The original recruitment of volunteers for this program simply entailed a more specific organization and education of the existing divers and snorkelers as to what exotics to look for. They concentrate on public outreach to divers and through creating things like brochures that can be distributed to dive shops or aquariums (many of the invasive reef fish actually come from aquariums not ballast water according to Christy). The program also maintains a gallery of fish on the Web site for divers to access before going on their dives. The divers go on the same dives that would have previously. This program simply encourages them to look for exotic species and report them to the program.

To conduct REEF surveys, the only thing that is required of volunteers to have is the REEF scanform that is available from REEF at no charge (at their Web site). REEF has created other survey materials as well in an attempt to make the survey easier for their volunteers. "Some of these things include formatted slates and waterproof survey paper, as well as waterproof color ID cards for the divers with photos of the exotic fish species." These materials, including free REEF scanforms, can be ordered online at the REEF Store or by contacting REEF directly. REEF and several of its partners also offer introductory courses in fish species identification, and although these two-hour seminars are not required to participate in the Project, Christy said, "they are a great way to get started." These free seminars are held each May and June. For a complete list of GAFC activities, visit the Web site http://www.fishcount.org.

Challenges of the Program

As with other volunteer programs, Christy stated that one of the major factors in the success of this program as well as others like it are insuring that there are "feedbacks to the volunteers, so that they don't get the feeling that all of the information or data that they are collecting is simply being dropped into a black box and being abandoned." This assures that the volunteers will feel a sense of accomplishment through the uses that their data provides (which will be discussed below). They feel good in what they are doing and will continue on with their efforts while at the same time becoming more and more aware of the exotics on the reefs.

There are several other major issues that the Exotic Species Sighting Program has been forced to consider. These issues include the wide variety of skill levels of the divers collecting the data, the potential for misidentifications, and the mostly qualitative nature of the data. However, generally, the sheer amount of data collected through the volunteers' efforts greatly minimizes the effect of these issues as well as the excellent guidebooks made available to divers. "There really have not been many reports of exotic species that have been inaccurate as generally the divers taking part in the program are very experienced fish watchers." Divers become well aware of the exotics, "as it is a great deal like bird watching."

There is also the issue of getting the word out to new divers about the information that is being reported This program addressed this issue through workshops, their Web site, creating brochures for aquariums and dive shops to put up and give to customers, and general community outreach. There is also "always the need to have good documentation," photos of the fish being sighted, "as you need to verify the data that the volunteers collect through good documentation of sightings."

Some of the volunteers did not want to report the invasive species they discovered. Christy thought that this could be because the volunteers actually saw the animals in a positive light, "like their own personal or unique fish or dive spot that they want to keep secret." Thus, there are misconceptions about the invasives that sometimes may need to be addressed.

Data Uses

Christy stated that the uses of the data gleaned by the volunteers for this program varies. If the species are located within the Marine Sanctuary of the Florida Keys then the data submitted by the volunteers might lead to an attempt at removal of the fish in those reef areas. However, "primarily the data serves as a database of knowledge for the public and anyone who is interested."

To this end, a variety of groups use the data, including R.E.E.F. members, the general public, and several conservation groups and management agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Biscayne Bay Foundation (BBF), and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). As the exotic species project has grown, some scientific papers and products have also been produced using the roving diver survey method and the project's database.

Overall, this successful program has resulted in the acquisition of a great deal of knowledge about invasive reef fish that may then be used by management agencies to address the issue of these invasives in the reef areas.

Quick Facts

R.E.E.F. Board of Trustees [8 members]
R.E.E.F. staff [5 members]
REEF Advisory Board [18 members]

Operating Budget: (2001): $533,283

Species Targeted: Non-native reef species
Examples include:
Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator)
Batfish (Platax orbicularis)
Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)
Bluering Angelfish (Pomacanthus annularis)
Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma desjardinii)

Habitats Patrolled: Ocean reef

Location: R.E.E.F. - worldwide, Exotic Species Sighting Program - Eastern
Coast of Florida

Report prepared by: Byron DeLuke

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Last Modified: Sep 23, 2018
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