17th Great Annual Fish Count is Here

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REEF Member Judie Clee Surveying. Photo by Ron Lucas.
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REEF Member Brian Hufford Surveying.

The 17th Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) has arrived! GAFC is a month long event coordinated by REEF Field Stations that encourages volunteer divers and snorkelers to participate in recreational trips to raise awareness regarding marine habitats and trends in fish populations. REEF partners and Field Stations have organized everything from group dives and snorkels to photo contests, BBQs, and aquarium tours. This is a great opportunity to take a free REEF Fish ID class and connect with other individuals as well as groups, such as local dive operations and non-profit organizations, who are also interested in doing the same objectives. Numerous activities have been scheduled for the Pacific Coast, Hawaii, California, Washington, Florida, Maine, British Columbia, and many other regions- and still more are being added! Details for scheduled events can be found on the GAFC website. Each year GAFC events generate approximately 2,000 surveys in July alone and increase the interest and involvement of hundreds of surveyors worldwide. Participating in a GAFC event is a great way to make an active contribution to marine conservation and get involved with what REEF does year round- engage volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect critical, valid, and cost-effective data. We hope you get involved!

Travel Trips and Tips - October

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Cozumel is one of the very few places that REEF surveyors can find the endemic Splendid Toadfish. A few spaces just opened up on the REEF Trip to Cozumel in December. Photo by Doug Biffard.
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In addition to fish, REEF surveyors report sea turtles, such as this one seen by Bev Biffard last year in Cozumel. Photo by Doug Biffard.

Looking for a special gift for that certain someone. A 2009 REEF Trip makes a perfect gift. REEF Trips are not only fun, have diving and fish watching involved (which makes it perfect by my standards) but these trips are educational, green and are scheduled to some of the most beautiful Caribbean dive destinations. Also as an added bonus - all divers need a buddy so you get a good reason to give yourself a trip too!

REEF Trips are filling up fast. One trip that has been sold out for almost a year, Cozumel in December, just had a few spaces open up. This is your opportunity to join REEF Expert and Cozumel local, Sheryl Shea, on an excellent dive vacation. Sheryl is an a-fishy-a-nado extraordinaire and will be sure to infuse great fish watching, interesting local history and lots of fun on these trips. There are 3 spaces available during Week 1, December 6 – 14, including an opportunity for a double occupancy room – 1 male looking for a roommate and 1 female looking for a roommate. So if you are flying solo and don’t want to pay single occupancy we will put you in touch with a potential roommate. Please give us a call for more information and to reserve your space 305-852-0030. There are also a few spaces still available during the second trip, December 13 – 18. Please call the REEF Travel Desk for booking this trip – 877-295-7333.

So remember give the gift of Fish Watching for the holidays – we can prepare you a beautiful gift certificate and even arrange for it to be presented in an autographed fish ID book (or creature or coral) wrapped in Bottom Crawlers Holiday gift wrap. REEF Trips are a great way to enjoy yourself while making a valuable contribution to REEF on several different levels. Remember make this holiday season one that is All About The Fish!

REEF Data Used To Evaluate the Status of Big Fish and Fisheries in the Caribbean

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Nassau grouper is one of 20 predatory fish species that were evaluated in a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS One. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Data collected by REEF volunteer surveyors from 86 sites in 22 Caribbean nations were used in the analysis. Stallings 2009.

Data collected as part of the REEF Volunteer Survey Project were the basis of a recent publication evaluating the effect of human population size on coral reef fish populations. The sweeping study, conducted by researcher Dr. Chris Stallings of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, revealed that sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region’s marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries. The study, which used data collected by REEF volunteers at sites in 22 Caribbean nations over 15 years, demonstrates the power of volunteer and community research efforts by non-scientists. Data are often insufficient at region-wide scales to assess the effects of extraction in coral reef ecosystems of developing nations. The REEF citizen science project fills this gap by generating valid and needed data over large geographic areas over long time periods.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Dr. Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. The study found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Stallings said that although several factors -- including loss of coral reef habitats -- contributed to the general patterns, careful examination of the data suggests overfishing as the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. He pointed to the Nassau grouper as a prime example. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have virtually disappeared from many Caribbean nearshore areas and are endangered throughout their range.

Dr. Stalling's article on the study, “Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities,” was published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One. The paper is available for download here.

To find out more about how REEF Volunteer Survey Project data have been used by scientists and government agencies, visit the Publications page on the REEF Website.

Reports From the Field - 2009 Bermuda Field Survey

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Thirteen lucky REEF members joined Anna and Ned Deloach, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook for a Field Survey to remember in Bermuda.
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The beautiful Puddingwife, one of the largest wrasse species in the western Atlantic. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Yellowhead Wrasse in Bermuda show unique coloration patterns. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A teeny tiny, baby Bermuda Chub found under floating Sargassum. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Over eight years ago, REEF expanded its flagship Fish Survey Project into Bermuda. Since then, local surveyors have contributed over 2500 surveys to the sighting database! In October, thirteen volunteers joined local REEF hosts Judie Clee and Chris Flook for a delightfully full schedule. After two extended survey dives each day, we were treated to a night snorkel and picnic to watch glowworms, a slideshow and dinner at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a private, guided tour of the nature preserve on Nonsuch Island, and a reception and presentations by the scientists from BREAM (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme). The week was topped off with a grand finale dinner and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Park.

One of the best things about fishwatching is seeing something new. Many areas have endemic fish and experienced fishwatchers know that fish coloration and behaviors can vary a lot from region to region. We arrived prepared to add Bermuda Bream, Bermuda Halfbeaks and Gwelly jacks to our lifelists but found ourselves equally thrilled to see the Bermuda version of the Yellowhead wrasse, called the Redback (for its distinctive red coloration) and the brilliant jewel colors of their Puddingwives. Between dives, Chris Flook, from the Bermuda Aquarium, filled buckets with rafts of Sargassum seaweed and pointed out juvenile chubs, crabs, shrimps, pipefish and frogfish. Judie’s expert eye helped us sort out the damselfish puzzle. We dived several times in an area where the Emerald Parrotfish was once quite common but has not been seen for many years. Our possible sightings have generated some excitement and Judie and Chris are investigating further. Our total species count for the week was 115 and included a rare sighting of a Conchfish.

Thanks go out to Triangle Diving for the welcome BBQ (and Lionfish hors d’oeuvres) and their excellent diving services. And very special thanks to the Bermuda Zoological Society for funding REEF in Bermuda and for underwriting many of our special activities of the week. We’ll be back – and promise that it won’t take eight years!

As this report reminds us -- REEF trips are more than just your average dive vacation. Be sure to check out the REEF trip 2010 schedule, which can be found online at www.REEF.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. We encourage you to join us on our adventures in 2010 and Take a Trip the Counts!

New Species of Goby Discovered, REEF Data Support the Research

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A new species discovered in Utila - the Redcheek Goby. Photo by Keri Wilk/ReefNet.
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Greenbanded Goby, a close relative of the new species. Photo by Jim Burke.
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The Redcheek Goby sports an extra red stripe on it's face, and is currently only known from Utila. Photo by Paul Humann.
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Range of the Greenbanded Goby group in the Western Atlantic. Greenbanded Goby superspecies complex (red), Redcheek Goby (purple), Panamanian Greenbanded Goby (yellow). Shading represents species range based on REEF survey data sightings and other sources.

Long-time REEF supporters, Les and Keri Wilk of ReefNet, recently discovered and photographed a distinctively marked population of the Greenbanded Goby, Elacatinus multifasciatus, on the island of Utila, Honduras. The population was distinguished by a prominent red stripe across the cheek that is not found on other populations of Greenbanded Gobies, as well as more numerous green bars on the body. The Wilks contacted Dr. Benjamin Victor (coralreeffish.com), a reef fish taxonomic expert, who conducted a regional genetic comparison of Greenbanded Gobies to evaluate hidden diversity within this colorful reef fish. As part of the study, the REEF database was used to document the current geographic range of the species. Dr. Victor's results identified the unique looking fish to be a separate species that is now called the Redcheek Goby (E. rubrigenis). He also discovered that, based on genetic results, Greenbanded Goby along coastal Panama, despite looking just like others in the species complex (i.e. a cryptic species, distinguished mainly by differing DNA sequences), are a distinct species that will now be called Panamanian Greenbanded Goby (E. panamensis). The study was published last month in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation.

The new species, the Redcheek Goby, replaces the Greenbanded Goby on the island of Utila and has not been sighted at any other location, potentially one of the smallest ranges reported for a Caribbean reef fish. With few exceptions, coral reef fishes have pelagic larvae that spend weeks to months developing in off-reef waters. As a result of this high dispersal ability, most Western Atlantic reef fish species have geographic ranges throughout the Caribbean Sea and adjacent areas. Endemic marine species (those only found in a given region or location and nowhere else in the world) are generally uncommon in the western Atlantic region. Furthermore, many of these widespread species show little, if any, variation in their genetic patterns between areas, particularly within the bounds of the Caribbean Sea with its many stepping-stone islands. Nevertheless, some groups of fishes, presumably those with more-restricted larval dispersal and strong local selection, show interesting patterns of endemism, genetic structure, and cryptic speciation within the region, for example among the Elacatinus cleaning gobies (e.g. Sharknose, Cleaning, Neon, Yellowline, etc.). Those reef fish taxa that contain cryptic species can provide valuable insights into the processes of speciation and the biogeographic history of the region, but also seriously challenge the traditional species concept. The results of Benjamin Victor's study highlight these challenges.

REEF is proud to be able to contribute to scientific studies such as this one. We are also thrilled that fishwatching by amateur non-scientists like our Fish Survey Project volunteers has been elevated beyond just a hobby, and is increasing the state of knowledge about reef fish diversity. The full citation of the publication is: Victor, B.C. 2010. The Redcheek Paradox: the mismatch between genetic and phenotypic divergence among deeply divided mtDNA lineages in a coral-reef goby, with the description of two new cryptic species from the Caribbean Sea. The Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, Vol 3. It is freely available online here. To find out more about this and other scientific publications that have featured REEF data, visit our Publications page here.

Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station

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REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.

This month we feature Naknek Charters and Diving, based in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington State. They became a REEF Field Station in October of 2008. Owners Kurt and Peggy Long first got involved with REEF about 10 years ago when they were on a liveaboard dive charter in the British Virgin Islands, and took an onboard REEF Fish ID class. Since then, Kurt has gone on to submit many surveys and has advanced up to REEF Level 5, and is now on the Pacific NW Advanced Assessment Team. One of the reasons that they became a Field Station was because they were very interested in educating divers and the public in general about the wonderful critters that live under the water. Peggy writes, “We live in a beautiful area with an abundance of wildlife. We want the public to realize that the beauty extends to the underwater world. This is America’s best year-round cold water diving destination - we have walls, current, fish life. In other words we have it all!”

So what Field Station activities have they chosen to put into action? “Our goal is to hold a REEF weekend at least twice a year. This involves a Saturday morning class with a two-tank boat dive in the afternoon. We also offer an optional two-tank dive on Sunday. This is a great way for divers to learn about fish ID and helps them put that knowledge into practice. We sell REEF slates in our shop and our boat is identified with REEF decals.” Peggy and Kurt have a 45' charter boat that can hold 14 divers and they run charters year round.

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Jonathan Lavan

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Secretary Blenny. Photo by Jonathan Lavan.
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REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 43,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Jonathan Lavan (REEF member since 2004). Jonathan has conducted 195 REEF surveys in four REEF regions, and he is a member of the Advanced Assessment Team in the Tropical Western Atlantic. Here's what Jonathan had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?

I got certified at age twenty in the cold waters of Maine. I dove there and in Florida for a number of years but then, like so many of us, life got in the way for several years. When I got back into diving I quickly realized that I really knew very little about what I was looking at. I started buying some ID books and eventually stumbled upon the Caribbean Fish ID Guide by Humann and DeLoach. Sometime after that I found the REEF website and saw that REEF had trips. My wife and I signed up for the Bahamas trip in ’04 with Paul Humann and after that I was hooked. I usually go on a couple REEF trips a year and any other trip I go on I always do REEF surveys whenever possible.

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?

Last April I went to Dominica with trip leader Heather George. On one dive I got a little separated from the group (as usual) as I was taking photos. I found a small cave and managed to hunker down to get a good look inside despite all my gear. Tucked way back in the cave I saw something quite small undulating like a piece of ribbon in the wind. It was a Black Brotula! Well I started shaking my rattle like crazy to try and get someone’s attention. Finally, Heather and another diver came over and after much gesturing and changing of places they both, finally saw it. I must say there was nothing more satisfying then when Heather looked around that last corner way back in the cave, saw the elusive fish and then I heard her say clearly through her regulator: “OOOooohh!”

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

I have many favorites but I have to say that I never get tired of watching or taking pictures of Secretary Blennies. They are so easy to personify with all their goofy expressions and fussy behavior.

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

As a photographer and surveyor, the key (as many know) is to go as slowly as possible. Let the divemaster race on ahead or make it very clear to them that you are going to be going “SLOOOW”. Not looking under that last ledge could be the difference between a great dive and really great dive.

Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Aqua Safari

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REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals, and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.

Our outstanding Field Station this month is Aqua Safari in Cozumel. Aqua Safari has supported REEF since 2001. At that time, long-time REEF member and Cozumel local, Sheryl Shea, took the lead in promoting the Fish Survey program through teaching fish ID to both Aqua Safari staff and customers. That year, Aqua Safari hosted the first Cozumel Field Survey trip, with REEF surveyors and marine park staff submitting over 200 surveys in just a week! Today, REEF's database holds data for over 400 species and over 6,000 surveys from Cozumel. Aqua Safari currently offers several fish ID courses to the general public: A "dry" introduction to Fish ID for snorkelers and divers; the REEF Level 2 course; and Advanced Fishes. There are plans to add a course geared to the interests of underwater photographers and an in-water snorkeling course with surveying. The Level 3 and advanced-level surveyor exams are offered annually during REEF Week. The shop stocks REEF books -- including a reference set for its customers' use after diving -- and survey materials. And they continue to host an annual REEF Field Survey trip each December (see www.REEF.org/trips). Aqua Safari warmly welcomes REEF members whom, the staff says, are generally excellent and aware divers who never fail to educate others on their boats. Aqua Safari has been in operation since 1966, pioneering sport diving in Cozumel and serving the island as an advocate for conservation of its marine environment. During the 1990's, owner Bill Horn worked toward the establishment of Cozumel's marine park and has maintained his vigilance regarding park policies and use. Thank you, Aqua Safari!

Putting It to Work: Who's Using REEF Data, March 2012

Photo by Janna Nichols.

Every month, scientists, government agencies, and other groups request raw data from REEF’s Fish Survey Project database. Here is a sampling of who has asked for REEF data recently and what they are using it for:

-A researcher from Florida International University is using REEF data from the Florida Keys to study changes in trophic interactions as a result of changes in top level predator communities in no-take reserves.

-REEF is working with staff from the Pew Environment Group and Southeast NOAA Fisheries to provide data that will facilitate the evaluation of Warsaw Grouper and Speckled Hind populations in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Release of Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management

REEF is excited to announce the release of Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management. Available as an e-book to view and/or download (formatted for desktop and mobile devices), this extensive manual was created to aid coastal managers and field workers in effectively managing the invasive lionfish problem. This best practices manual consists of chapters on control strategies, outreach and education plans, research, monitoring, legal considerations, and ideas for acquiring resources and vital partnerships from around the region. Invasive lionfish are a major ecological disaster causing wide-reaching negative impacts throughout the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. By utilizing examples provided in this guide, researchers and managers throughout the region will be well equipped to address the lionfish invasion.

This work would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of NOAA, REEF, ICRI, the United Nations Environment Programme, Caribbean Environment Programme, SPAWRAC, and the 40+ participants of the 2010 Caribbean Regional Lionfish Workshop. This manual will be the first book in the new GCFI Special Publication Series. Authors include James Morris (NOAA), Dayne Buddo (University of the West Indies, Jamaica), Stephanie Green (Simon Frasier University), Ricardo Lozano (CONANP, Mexico), and Lad Akins (REEF).

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub