One hundred recreational scuba divers jumped into the Gulf of Maine on Saturday armed with plastic writing pads and No. 2 pencils. Their mission: Count and identify the fish and invertebrates they see.
The divers are creating a database that scientists could use to gain insight into the range and population levels of marine life in the gulf.
“We are just trying to be the eyes and ears of the scientists and give them information they don’t have,” said Bob Michelson, who is coordinating the Gulf of Maine survey.
This is expected to be the largest one-day dive event associated with the Great Annual Fish Count, which takes place in coastal waters in North and South America.
The project is modelled after the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, an annual survey of bird populations that has been ongoing since 1900.
Volunteers can identify and count most fish species just as well as scientists can, said Christy Pattengill-Semmens, a scientist who coordinates fish-count data for The Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
The large number of volunteer surveys provides “statistical power” that makes the data valuable to scientists, she said. This kind of data would be impossible for scientists to collect on their own because there is not enough research money available, she said.
Divers fill out a standardized form that REEF supplies. The Florida-based non-profit conservation group receives data from 2,000 surveys each month.
It began recording diver surveys in 1993 in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and today has 85,000 survey records.
Pattengill-Semmens said scientists routinely refer to the database, which is available to anyone for no charge at www.reef.org. Fisheries managers in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have used the data to create management plans.
The program has been particularly helpful in tracking the range expansion of native and non-native species, she said.
The effort in the Gulf of Maine is only four years old, so there is not enough data yet for significant scientific value, said Michelson, who trains New England divers to count fish as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Sanctuary Program. He said the value will increase as the database grows.
Right now, divers in the Gulf of Maine have produced about 800 surveys.
“If you get thousands of surveys over the course of years,” he said, “it starts to do some good.”
Today, 94 divers involved in the program will be doing surveys off Cape Ann in Massachusetts, and six drivers will launch from Nubble Light in York. Last year, 84 divers spotted more than 40 species of fish in the Gulf of Maine.
The event is part of the annual celebration of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, one of the nation’s 13 special marine areas selected for their ecological, recreational and historical values. The 842-square-mile sanctuary is located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.