South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Volunteer Divers Use Latest Camera Technology to Provide Fisheries Data in New Collaborative Citizen Science Project

A female diver aims an underwater camera at a fish swimming by soft coral.

Size matters – especially when it comes to fisheries management. A new collaborative project SMILE (Size Matters: Innovative Length Estimate) is now underway in the Florida Keys to help collect information about fish lengths. These data are critical for fisheries stock assessments, which are used to manage ecologically and economically important marine species. Funded through NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), the SMILE project involves volunteer divers, innovative underwater camera technology, and the expansion of a citizen science approach to collect length data for reef fish in the South Atlantic.

The SMILE project team includes Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (SAFMC) Citizen Science Program, the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), and Axiom Data Science. The REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project, launched in 1993, has successfully worked with trained recreational divers to create one of the world’s largest citizen science-based marine life databases. The SMILE project will incorporate diver-collected fish length data, through the use of stereo video technology, as a companion to the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project.

“We appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this collaborative effort supporting citizen science,” said Dr. Carolyn Belcher, Chair of the SAFMC. “Generating length distribution data for key species across a broad geographic range will better inform population assessments, leading to more effective conservation and management strategies.” 

Two divers in the water wearing white shirts with the REEF logo on the upper arm. One holds a large underwater camera, the other holds a pad and pencil while showing the ‘hang loose’ hand signal.
Photo: Daryl Duda

Fish length data traditionally require a fish in hand to make measurements, and it can be difficult for scientists to collect this information. By leveraging trained REEF citizen scientist divers, this collaboration will provide valuable fish length data for fisheries stock assessments and ecosystem-based management.

Citizen science programs, such as the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project and the SMILE project, empower the public to generate monitoring data and promote active participation in resource management science. Divers and snorkelers are in a unique position, as they can serve as ‘the eyes of scientists’ in marine ecosystems by reporting their findings.

The camera technology for this project is being developed by a team of engineers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Engineers for Exploration program, and The Semmens Lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Field testing and camera technology development were previously supported by UCSD Kastner Research Lab and The Nature Conservancy California, and a grant from the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida (FWFF) via proceeds from the ‘Discover Florida’s Oceans’ license plate. A stakeholder panel will provide expertise throughout the project on survey methodology, fish species of interest, and site selection for image collection. All video files, images, fish species abundance, and length data will be made publicly accessible for current research and management needs and future advancement of machine learning technologies.

Through the funding support of NOAA CRCP, the partnership between REEF, SAFMC’s Citizen Science Program, SECOORA, Scripps Oceanography, UCSD, and Axiom Data Science will bring new data sources into stock and ecosystem assessment processes and increase communication to the dive community about fisheries management issues.

A female diver in red patterned pants has her legs wide while holding a large underwater camera.
Photo: REEF

Please visit or contact Alli Candelmo, REEF’s Conservation Science Manager ( or 305-852-0030) for more information.

Featured photo credit: Daryl Duda