What started as underwater observations by a local marine naturalist has turned into a growing taxonomy of nearshore species in the Pacific region. To date, information from nearly 5,000 dives in 1,200 locations has created a searchable database that has become a critical tool in monitoring the biodiversity of B.C.’s coast.

Authors:Charlie Gibbs and Donna Gibbs, Pacific Marine Life Surveys, Inc.

Reviewers: Jeff Marliave, Senior Research Scientist, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative

Jessica Schultz, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative

Neil McDaniel, Marine Naturalist

Banner Photo Credit: Diane Reid

What’s happening?

 

For 50 years, diver and marine naturalist Andy Lamb has been meticulously recording and quantifying everything he sees underwater. For 25 of those years, Donna and Charlie Gibbs have been augmenting the list with observations made on their own dives. To preserve this invaluable history of marine life, Donna, a taxonomist, painstakingly entered 1,600 of Andy’s hand written records (Figure 1) into a digital database, while Charlie, a software engineer, developed systems to manage and easily extract data based on specific searches. The result of this “labour of love” is a searchable database of species-specific observations from over 4,920 dives at 1,200 locations in B.C., Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California. The effort that has gone into developing and maintaining this store of knowledge epitomizes the strength of the connection between these divers and their marine home. For many years some folks “in-the-know” have been aware of this effort, called Pacific Marine Life Surveys Inc. (PMLS), although it has not been widely recognized, nor publicly accessible. Donna receives and answers requests for data regularly.

 

Figure 1. Handwritten dive log from 1986.

Why is it important?

 

“About 20 years ago someone asked me, ‘Who funds this database?’ I looked at them rather blankly and said, ‘We do!’”

-Donna Gibbs, Taxonomist with Pacific Marine Life Surveys, Inc.

 

This database contains information on over 1,200 species – fishes, invertebrates, plants including algae –
observed over the past 50 years. These observations have proven useful in many applications to date. For example, in 1998 when Parks Canada requested data to support establishment of a National Marine Conservation Area in the Southern Gulf Islands, the database provided information on 593 species from 325 dives. When sea star wasting syndrome was first recognized in 2013, the PMLS database revealed a history of the vanishing species, including where they had been observed and their abundance. Changes since then have been analyzed as well. More recently, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has requested data for locations of interest for an evaluation of nearshore EBSAs (Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas). The database provided lists of species with relative abundance.

In 2011, the database was used as a source of information to investigate documented climate regime shifts. Authors looked for changes in species biodiversity in the zone observed by SCUBA divers across time periods delineated by regime shifts. Results are inconclusive as statistical tests were not supported, but the data appear to show that a regime shift in 2000 led to reduced biodiversity – likely only for the more rare species.

In 2015, the software was used in the Sitka Field Data Report for a Marine Biodiversity Project. The Sitka Foundation provided the funds for the Vancouver Aquarium to learn how to teach field identification skills to interested divers. We trained professional divers along with sport divers to hone their identification skills and analyzed the results. This project recognises the importance of morphological taxonomy (identifying species by their outward appearance, form, and structural features) as a skill. Fewer professionals specialize in morphological taxonomy, instead focusing on more “cutting edge” skills that take advantage of new technology. Without efforts like the PMLS, the ability to visually identify marine life could be a lost skill in the next generation of marine scientists.

 

Left to right, Andy Lamb, Donna Gibbs, and Charlie Gibbs. (Photos courtesy of Donna Gibbs)

 

First Nations Connections

 

For over two years the database has been used to report on the settlement of species on the HMCS Annapolis, a decommissioned naval ship sunk in 2015 to become reef habitat in Howe Sound. The Squamish Nation approved the project and tracks the information on species observed there as the diversity increases.

What is the current status?

 

In 2017, a handful of divers contributed data regularly to the database. A certain level of experience is required to properly identify the range of species observed in coastal B.C., and Donna takes care to ensure each diver has that experience and can identify species accurately. Members of the Howe Sound Research and Conservation dive team at the Vancouver Aquarium are regular contributors.

 

Figure 2. Number of species observed in each of ten taxonomic phyla.

Figure 3. PMLS dive locations.

The database now documents over 1,200 species in ten phyla that have been recorded (Figure 2). The spatial extent of records includes the entire length of the coast of B.C., into Alaska to the north, and as far as California to the south (Figure 3).

Species observations recorded in the PMLS database are better suited for some studies than for others for several reasons. The collection is a set of species observations by location with some accompanying habitat descriptions. Species absence from a site at any time cannot be inferred, and abundance estimates are relative. The effort expended to gather observations is not standardized. Each unit of effort is a dive and all dives are not equal due to individual differences in diver skills, including observation and taxonomic identification. Further, the distribution of dives in space and time is not consistent or standardized. The taxonomic expertise of divers increases with experience, such that the number of species identified per year increased for many years, peaking in 2003, and shows variability since then (Figure 4). For a record of biodiversity, the length of the time series and the geographic extents are rare and valuable. According to the PMLS database, biodiversity (within diving depths) among regions of the B.C. coast does differ. The database is well suited to support site-specific explorations, biodiversity comparison among regions, and comparison across time periods.

 

Figure 4. The number of species observed each year varies with the number of dives recorded and with the accumulated experience of the divers. The more experience, the more species identified and recorded. Also, fewer plants were identified in the 1960s and 1970s.

What can you do?

 

action-individual

Individual and Organization Actions:

  • Report unusual SCUBA observations along with location data and photos to Donna.Gibbs@ocean.org. Credible observations will be added to the database.
  • Study the taxonomy of biodiversity in nearshore marine habitats.

action-government

Government Actions and Policy:

  • Support citizen science programs that encourage and facilitate learning about the marine environment.
  •  Encourage university students to study taxonomy.

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