In an effort to increase awareness about the organization’s volunteer fish survey program, a representative from REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, met with representatives from Divers Direct on Oct. 29 for an underwater demonstration of the program, which allows divers and snorkelers of all skill levels to participate in reef conservation efforts.

The barrier reef of the Florida Keys, and its inhabitants, are threatened by a number of factors, including global climate changes, fishing and pollution, according to information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

REEF’s stated mission is to “educate and enlist divers in the conservation of marine habitats.”

Lisa Mitchell, executive director of REEF, said that conservation efforts are more successful when the community is involved, which is why REEF created the Volunteer Survey Project.

This project utilizes volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect data on fish populations in various underwater habitats. The volunteers are briefed on the Roving Diver Technique, or RDT, which allows them to visually observe and record approximate numbers of different species of fish.

“Scientists can’t cover the same ground as recreational divers,” said Mitchell. Simply having more people in the water surveying fish populations increases REEF’s databank.

At this point, Mitchell said that there are about 90,000 volunteer surveyors and that number is still growing.

Having many volunteers also increases the chances of sighting invasive species early enough to prevent an infestation, she said.

When orbicular batfish, an invasive species, were sighted in the Florida Keys, they were detected and removed early because of divers like those involved with the Volunteer Survey Project, Mitchell said.

“It was reef divers that spotted the anomaly,” she said.

Mitchell said that the current worry is that lionfish will appear in the Keys.

Lionfish are an invasive species native to the Indo-pacific that reproduce once a month, have a wide range of prey and few predators, Mitchell said. They have invaded areas of the East Coast, the Bahamas and other warm water environments.

In the event that lionfish do appear in the Keys, having many volunteers surveying the waters will increase the chances that the lionfish will be found early, before they become too numerous to remove, Mitchell said.

But REEF isn’t satisfied yet. In order to increase the already substantial number of volunteers, the organization is beginning to partner with dive shops. That’s why Mitchell they spent the day on the water with Divers Direct’s Marketing Manager Rob Darmanin and Human Resources Manager Kathy Smith.

Darmanin said that he and Smith were excited to familiarize themselves with the program.

He said that Divers Direct is partnering with REEF to spread awareness about reef conservation programs.

The stores get lots of traffic, he said, and by providing information and materials on the survey program, Divers Direct can help inform individual divers of how they can participate to help preserve the reef.

“They’re out diving it,” he said, which gives them a good reason to want to save it.

“We want to know how we can work together to help the environment,” Darmanin said. “I wanted to get firsthand experience on how their system works.”

The two Diver’s Direct representatives dove on two different areas of the Elbow Reef off Key Largo and used REEF’s data collection sheets to count species of fish on their dives.

Mitchell showed the divers how to sight fish and approximate their numbers.

After the dive, Darmanin and Smith signed up to become REEF members, which is free on the website.

As REEF members, Darmanin and Smith were able to input their findings on the website, which automatically adds their surveys to the thousands of others that make up the foundation’s databank.

Mitchell said that volunteers for the program are, “citizen scientists,” meaning that their data is helps REEF create future conservation efforts based on accurate and extensive data.

Diving for the Volunteer Survey Project adds value to your dives, said Mitchell.

“Fish create a steward of the environment,” she said. Once you get to know the fish, you become more concerned with preserving their environment.

She said that diving for the REEF project is really “diving that counts.”

More information on REEF and the Volunteer Survey Program is available at www.

Divers Direct Human Resources Manager Kathy Smith participates in her first fish survey. (Photo by Erin Magee)

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