A fundamental problem faced by managers dealing with increasing threats to the inshore marine environment is that they occur out of sight. Little reliable information exists on the distribution and true scale of threats, causing great difficulty when allocating resources to where conservation intervention is most useful. The Reef Life Survey (RLS; www.reeflifesurvey.com) program seeks to remedy these problems by providing high-quality information needed for marine research and management. A small network of skilled recreational divers has been trained in the technical knowledge needed to scientifically and cost-effectively survey abundances and sizes of fish and invertebrate species, and marine flora, along transects on temperate and tropical reefs. RLS places an emphasis on data quality—achieved by limiting the program to the best divers, through providing immediate feedback, and by organising collaborative surveys with researchers. The program is directed by a steering committee that, in addition to scientists and recreational divers, includes representatives from Australian national and state coastal management agencies, thereby ensuring that data are collected from priority regions and contribute to coastal planning. Ecological data are managed within a central database and made freely available to the public.
Because of lower costs, RLS data allow ecological analyses based on consistent methodology to be undertaken at larger geographic and temporal scales than possible for scientific dive teams. To date, RLS data have been used to: (i) assess efficacy of management zones within marine protected areas (MPAs), (ii) assist planning of the South Australian MPA network, (iii) track the distribution of threatened species, (iv) track the distribution of invasive species, (v) assess fish range extensions associated with oceanographic anomalies and climate change, (vi) quantify impacts of fish farms on coastal flora and fauna, and (vii) describe changes in ecological communities with urban pollution gradients. The great value of RLS data in identifying general patterns at continental scales is illustrated using the case example of MPA planning. Analysis of data collected inside versus outside 15 MPAs distributed across temperate and subtropical Australia indicate that effects of MPAs depend strongly on life history attributes of species and also on MPA age. Data describing the composition and distribution of reef communities around the South Australian coast allow planning of the state MPA network to extend beyond representation of physical habitat types to ecological communities. In summary, citizen science provides a powerful but neglected tool for scientists and managers concerned with safeguarding the marine environment.