Newly published paper shows the importance of your fish observations

Given my late arrival in Australia I have only been a short-time member of the Australasian Fishes project. Having had my eye in for Hawaiian and Red Sea coral reef fishes for many years, the diverse and endemic Australasian tropical to temperate fish fauna served as a challenge, but I was certainly up for the task. The Ichthyology Collection Manager (Mark McGrouther) at the time of my employment as Curator at the Australian Museum (AM) in Sydney in 2018 introduced me to wild and wonderful world of citizen science in Australia.
I have always believed in the power of citizen science data, particularly when supported by the submission of photos by dedicated divers and fishers, identifications by amateur naturalists with invaluable local knowledge, and vetted by professional scientists where taxonomic disagreements arise. The Australasian Fishes project seemed to cover all these bases. I was also inspired by a developing and now published review by Mesaglio and Callaghan (2021) (view the paper ) that was mentioned in a previous journal post (view journal post), heralding in the inherent value and future potential of iNaturalist observations in Australia. Indeed, Mesaglio and Callaghan state that the Australasian Fishes Project propelled an acceleration in monthly observation rates since its inception on iNaturalist within Australia, including providing a disproportionate number of records for newly protected fish species such as the endangered White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei). View the species fact sheet on the DPI website.
What interested me most, however, was if and how these citizen science data under the iNaturalist model might better serve conservation and fisheries stakeholders who I work with on several related projects. For example, could your observations be used to effect change in the management status of a particular fish species, or revise expectations on where you might find said species (i.e., expanding or contracting range limits). This ultimately depends on the spatial and temporal scope of the aggregate of records from such citizen science initiatives, as well as their composition.
We therefore formulated a paper around this idea, now published in Aquatic Conservation - Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (view the paper). We started by downloading the full dataset from the Australasian Fishes project in March 2020. At the time, we had access to, and subsequently quality filtered, 77,600 observations, but as you well know the number of observations has nearly doubled to over 141,000 across Australia and New Zealand at the time of writing this journal entry.
Scientific research and data analysis rarely happens in isolation, and so I enlisted help from current Collection Manager at the AM, Amanda Hay, a keen postdoctoral researcher at CSIRO, Dr Katrina West (my former PhD student at Curtin University), as well as two fisheries research scientists at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Drs Ashley Fowler and Julian Hughes, both of whom relished the opportunity to interrogate the form and function of these records. Ash and Julian seemed eager to be involved in a pure research side project, and provided the stakeholder lens to interpret the apparent patterns in the data.
In our published study, we found that some of the species with the highest number of observations included the largest seahorse in Australia (Bigbelly Seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis), the state fish emblem of NSW (Eastern Blue Groper Achoerodus viridis), the only extant species in the family Enoplosidae with a much-maligned moniker (Old Wife Enoplosus armatus), and fishes important to both commercial and recreational fisheries (Snapper Chrysophrys auratus). I suspect several of you would have submitted excellent in situ photos of these “fan favourites”. Not to take sides, but the Eastern Blue Groper is one of my personal picks to spot, follow, and observe in the Sydney metro area when out for a snorkel.
When we looked more broadly across all fish species identified in the Australasian Fishes records, a number were either already under some form of threat as assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or actively managed by state and federal authorities. For example, 15 fish species among the top 50 most important commercial and recreational marine species in NSW each had over 100 records in Australasian Fishes. Australian endemic fishes whose threat status had not yet been assessed by the IUCN and species not currently under any form of management were also well represented, which is where I feel the greatest value of the Australasian Fishes database may lie.
Spatial management of our natural resources will always be limited by funding and staff allocation, which in some cases ends up being funnelled towards strategic priorities. It turns out the most well-represented species (e.g., the family Syngnathidae - seahorses and pipefishes) or at-risk species (e.g., freshwater fishes) in our citizen science data set (i.e., most observations) are recorded infrequently in traditional monitoring programs. The largest gains will therefore be made when citizens such as yourselves “supplement” management initiatives with observations of species not currently represented or provide enough records for a single species (perhaps identified at an individual level) where more quantitative inferences can be drawn (e.g., population abundance and/or health).
Gaps in observations between major urban centres like between Brisbane and Sydney were not unexpected as these reflect a spatial bias common in other citizen science datasets. There is only so much ground we can collectively cover in our spare time! I instead propose a more holistic approach that makes use of archival photos, records submitted by research scientists leading active projects in the remote and inaccessible parts of Australasia, as well as renewed efforts by you fellow citizens.
In closing, I’d like to extend a heartfelt thanks to the Australasian Fishes community members who have contributed observations, identifications, and validations of records that support our goal of increased understanding of fish diversity. A study like this would not have been possible without everyone’s efforts over the years. Thanks also to Mark McGrouther for supporting the project from its very beginning in many different capacities and allowing me to interrogate the growing data base to satisfy my curiosity and translate its importance to prospective stakeholders in Australia.
This journal post was written by Australasian Museum Fish Curator Dr Joseph (Joey) DiBattista. View Joey's Australian Museum profile and his iNaturalist profile.
Posted on November 25, 2021 12:35 AM by markmcg markmcg


Great stuff :)

Posted by mattcampbellaus over 1 year ago (Flag)

Amazing work!

Posted by biniek-io over 1 year ago (Flag)

Really interesting piece. Thanks for the background and the paper.

Posted by julianpepperell over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thank you for this encouraging publication and summary.

Posted by amfstocker over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thanks for your kind comments troops! :)

Posted by markmcg over 1 year ago (Flag)

Great work. And so lovely to see Norfolk Island included in this project.

Posted by susanprior over 1 year ago (Flag)

Hi @susanprior. Yes, Norfolk Island is definitely included in the Australasian Fishes Project. You are amassing an impressive number of observations from there. Thank you. :)

Posted by markmcg over 1 year ago (Flag)

@thebeachcomber your paper with Corey was the inspiration that we all needed.

Posted by amandahay over 1 year ago (Flag)

@amandahay I'm glad it was useful :D

Posted by thebeachcomber over 1 year ago (Flag)

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