Reef Life Survey (RLS) here is a national program that commenced three years ago with the goal of improving marine resource management by developing and resourcing a network of skilled volunteer SCUBA divers to collect reliable and scientifically-credible information on the state of the marine environment. Through the skills and experience of appropriate SCUBA divers, as well as partnerships with relevant management agencies, RLS strives to facilitate sustainable biodiversity management by providing managers with biodiversity information at spatial and temporal scales beyond those possible by scientific teams (which have to work with increasingly limited resources).
RLS involves only the most enthusiastic and capable amongst the recreational diving community, and provides thorough training and ongoing support for trained volunteers. Because RLS works directly with marine conservation managers, the data collected by RLS divers are directly contributing to management decisions - for example data have already contributed to MPA planning in South Australia and the zoning review for the Lord Howe Island Marine Park. They also formed the baseline for reef biodiversity in the recently declared Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve(see www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/publications/cod-grounds-biodiversity.html), and form part of the ongoing monitoring of many Victorian and NSW marine reserves.
In addition to contributions to biodiversity management, RLS data are used in scientific analyses to tackle questions that require broad-scale standardised data - for example, to establish general principles associated with the effectiveness of MPAs (See the ‘Reports’ section of the RLS website for recent publications). Student projects and collaborative scientific studies are also supported, and continue to build as the RLS database expands.
Following the monumental survey expedition around northern Australia this year, the RLS database now contains species-level data on reef fishes, mobile invertebrates and photo-quadrats of coral and seaweed cover from over 2200 surveys across >1100 sites. This invaluable resource represents the first circum-Australian dataset of marine biodiversity data collected using standardised quantitative methods. These data are freely available to the public for non-profit purposes, so not only managers, but also dive operators, dive clubs and schools may use these data to look at changes over time in their own local reefs (Please see attached map for distribution of RLS sites around Australia).
Given that an original goal of gathering a continental baseline of reef biodiversity data has been achieved, the priority of the program going forward over the next few years will be to undertake targeted re-surveys of existing priority areas for which we hope to establish long term datasets. It is hoped that approximately 20 locations can be established for long-term monitoring to contribute to reef conditions reports, with numerous sites at each.