One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

"People who participate in monitoring often feel a stronger connection to the places they are helping to protect and restore."


By Evelyn Wight

Have you ever wondered what Nature Conservancy  divers are doing when they strap on SCUBA gear and go to work underwater equipped with a clipboard and pen? 

If you answered, “They’re recording what’s in the water,” your right.  And there are a lot of things to record.  Here is a sample list:   

- how many fish of what size and species and age?
- what kinds of coral and how healthy are they?
- how big and varied in size are coral colonies?
- how clear is the water?
- what is its temperature?
- what kind of algae clings to the reefs?
- how much algae is there?

Making it Count

The communities we work with need this information so they can determine if their actions are helping protect and restore Hawai‘i’s reefs. It’s just like any other project – if you don’t know where you start, and you don’t take a look at how you’re doing along the way, then you can’t know if you are successful or not at the end – or if you need to change course part of the way through.

Everyone monitors, even if they are unaware of it. For example, every time you check the clock to see if it’s lunchtime (or quitting time), that’s monitoring. Report cards, weight scales, performance reviews, even checking if paint is dry yet – these are all forms of monitoring.

In the vast ocean, monitoring is a little harder (and more fun!) than watching paint dry, but we’ve developed rigorous, repeatable techniques that measure how we’re doing in each site as well as across multiple sites on each island and statewide. Specific guidelines for every monitoring project outline where to swim, in what direction, what to count, how to count it, how to record the data, and so forth. Calibrating a team to conduct monitoring in the same way provides results that answer community questions by adhering to scientific and academic standards. It’s hard work. When our teams go out, they are doing as many as six SCUBA dives per day and 30 dives per trip, gathering data every moment they are on the ocean. Speed and efficiency are important both to save costs and because the weather can change at any moment.

A Stronger Connection 

But counting what’s out there is just the first step. Once all that information is gathered by our divers, our scientists have to crunch the numbers – analyzing what it all means, how things are changing over time and, most importantly, putting all of that information together in ways that are understandable to the rest of us so we know what we need to do to continue improving our oceans and reefs.

Each project has a unique set of measures. For example, to improve reef health in Kāne‘ohe Bay on O‘ahu by removing invasive algae, the first step is counting and assessing how much coral is there, how healthy is it, how many fish that eat algae are there, and how much invasive algae is smothering reefs. We are also measuring things like tons of invasive algae removed over what area, numbers of native urchins outplanted, hours spent by staff, and even gas used. 

But healthy, thriving reefs are the ultimate goal, so as we remove invasive algae, we are monitoring the health of the coral reefs and how that changes over time. When the project is completed and all of the data analyzed, we will be able to determine the impact of our actions on reef health based on science, not just supposition. 

Citizen scientists can count fish too, and in addition to providing data, people who participate often feel a stronger connection to the place they are helping to protect and restore. Volunteers often begin to see the natural cycles on a reef, such as when there are lots of little fish, or when certain fish come into an area.

Our scientific divers also feel a stronger connection to a place after monitoring an area. And that’s  important. Because when you feel a strong connection to place, you want to see it protected.  

Evelyn Wight is the senior communications manager for The Nature Conservancy in Hawai'i.