Citizen Science Saves Coral Reefs from Hungry Lionfish

How the Next Rescuer of Coral Reefs Just Might Be You

If you found this article, it’s pretty likely you’re at least a little bit interested in science. Maybe you’re already a scientist yourself, or maybe you’re a regular person who works in a different field but likes to hear about cool discoveries and advancements.

If you’re already a scientist, have you ever needed many more hands than were available to you?

If you’re not a scientist, have you ever wanted to do science even if it wasn’t your job? Have you wanted to help make discoveries yourself in your spare time?

For many people, this is not only possible, but extremely easy to do. A person who isn’t a scientist professionally but helps research efforts in their spare time is a citizen scientist.

If you live near an institution or organization of some kind that does research, you may be able to do this work yourself. Many of these research groups have citizen science programs, and they are becoming increasingly popular. They are especially common among communities of people like hikers or scuba divers who enjoy being out in nature and want to help advance science along the way.

Citizen Science Tackles the Invasive Red Lionfish

Citizen science projects have been extremely useful to some research groups. In particular, projects studying and removing the invasive lionfish in the Caribbean have been quite successful.

The red lionfish, Pterois volitans, is native to the Red Sea. It is a popular aquarium pet that escaped or released into Florida waters in 1985. Since then, its numbers have exploded, and its range increased over time. Today, lionfish live on reefs from the Carolinas in the US, throughout Florida and the Caribbean islands, and as far south as Brazil.

A lionfish. It has dark and light stripes like a tiger, with numerous pointy fin spines that are also striped.
Photo by Nikola Bačanek on Unsplash

With such large numbers and extended range, managing the lionfish is a monumental task: one that requires as many hands on deck as possible. Enter the citizen scientist.

Citizen Science is Effective

A diver at the surface of the ocean on a cloudy day. He holds up a spear with a lion fish on the end, a common way to get involved in citizen science.
Photo by Danielle Bouchard on Unsplash

All throughout the western Atlantic, regular people have helped scientists with many aspects of their research. A study published on December 15 looked at 71 different organizations throughout the lionfish’s invaded range who maintain a citizen science program. The study surveyed these groups about the involvement of citizen scientists and how these efforts have aided in lionfish research and management.

The people involved raised awareness, promoted consumption, organized culling or removal of lionfish, arranged and participated in tournaments, and collected data. The most common activity across these organizations was data collection, with sixty five percent of groups using public assistance. Most of these efforts contributed directly to scientific publications, management recommendations, or government policy.

Invasive lionfish have cascading effects on the ecosystems where they invade. They reproduce extremely quickly, and have a voracious appetite. They can quickly consume many of the juvenile native fish on a reef, which over time reduces the number of adult native fish around.

Fish are important to reefs for nutrient cycling (yes, their poop is important!), algae grazing, and providing food for small cleaner animals, like shrimp. Nearby human communities may also catch them to feed their families or sell to support themselves.

How to Get Involved

Citizen science projects are a valuable way to gather many sets of hands and brains to work on the lionfish problem together. When guided by scientists, these groups of community members can record useful, detailed, scientific data. Program leaders then translate and share the information with other scientists, government resource managers, and the public alike. The more we know about lionfish and their effects, the more efficiently we can stop their spread and prevent further damage to coral reefs.

So whether you are a scientist or not, consider creating or joining a citizen science project near you. Recording and hunting lionfish is only one project; there are many ways you can help a scientist near you. Noting and removing invasive species in your area is a common one. National Geographic has a list of ideas to try.

Anyone can participate online without any prior training. The website Zooniverse teaches you how to identify animals or objects of interest in a photo. You can look for greater bilbies on a camera trap (they look like a cross between a rabbit, a kangaroo, and an anteater). If space is more your jam, you can look for gravitational waves. You can transcribe burial records from the 18th century. Your photo analysis (yes, that’s what you’re doing!) will be combined with others and sent to scientists who can aggregate the information into useful conclusions.

Take-Home Message

There is a world of possibilities out there for anyone to get involved. Help a scientist, save a reef, and have a real impact on humanity’s collective knowledge.

I need to mention that the term “citizen science” is controversial. Some people argue that these communities should be open to all, including those without official citizenship. The word “citizen” is unnecessarily exclusive. In this piece, I have used “citizen science” to match the terminology in the study I described. Many people are shifting to using the term “community science” instead.

You might also like these posts:

4 Reasons to Try Scuba Diving if You Haven’t Before

How Fish Poop Can Help the Climate

What an Earthquake Feels Like From Underwater