DR RICHARD (RICK) STUART-SMITHTo investigate the establishment of a marine research and conservation network of scientifically-trained volunteer divers - Seychelles, UK, Maldives, Tanzania, Bonaire
A passionate SCUBA diver and flyfisher, for Rick it is all just about being close to fish. His education and career have taken him from sampling fish in cold Tasmanian highland lakes to recording fish species on underwater paper on coral reefs in the Red Sea. His day job is as a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania, where his research focusses on ecology and conservation. On weekends, evenings and holidays he runs a diving-based citizen science program with marine life guru Professor Graham Edgar. Together they founded the Reef Life Survey program (www.reeflifesurvey.com), in which they train and direct a network of volunteer divers to collect detailed data on marine biodiversity. Reef Life Survey has teams of divers around Australia, Spain, USA, UK, New Zealand, South Africa, Nicaragua and Panama, and has seen over 7,000 underwater surveys conducted in 44 countries, and still counting.
There are many aspects of program management that remain challenges for marine citizen science programs in Australia (including Reef Life Survey). The primary aim of the project was to understand how other international programs deal with the challenges of training volunteer divers to collect useful data, including aspects such as volunteer recruitment, retention, logistics in remote areas, obtaining and maintaining funding, and training methods, particularly for high diversity coral habitats where data collection requires a high level of skill. Site visits and meetings with management staff were used.
FELLOWSHIP CONCLUSIONS & OUTCOMES
Five critical and consistent messages evolved that put Reef Life Survey and other Australian marine citizen science programs into context as well as providing guidance for improvement:
(1) There is a trade-off between the number of divers involved and the level of detail collected in data, among the programs visited
(2) Changing data collection roles (to simpler methods) appears to be the most widespread way of managing data quality in terms of dealing with volunteers who don’t perform at a high level
(3) The use of remote field locations appears to be useful for improving training effectiveness, through reducing distractions to volunteers and enhancing team dynamics/camaraderie
(4) Partnerships are critical. Aligning activities with dive shops and government agencies greatly enhances logistical capabilities and outcome applicability
(5) DAN insurance appears to be a global standard for volunteer SCUBA operations, and may be an appropriate avenue for insurance support for volunteer activities in Australia.