Lionfish Arrive in the Florida Keys!

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Lad Akins holds a bag with the unwanted visitor captured off a Florida Keys reef.
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FKNMS staff, John Halas, writes the invader a "ticket" for multiple offenses to the native Florida Keys ecosystem. Photo by Frazier Nivens.
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After being euthanized, the lionfish was measured and preserved for further scientific study. It was 99 mm. Photo by Linda Bleser.

While we all knew it was just a matter of time, the call still came with a bit of surprise and dread as the first confirmed lionfish sighting in the Florida Keys came in on January 6th, 2009. REEF member Becky Fowler, from Greenville, SC, was diving just offshore of the Benwood Wreck in Key Largo when she spotted the invasive lionfish near the base of a ledge at 66'. With all of the recent focus and outreach efforts that REEF has been forwarding to our members, she knew immediately that she needed to document the sighting and gather a detailed description of its location. Upon her return to shore, she called REEF HQ and delivered the report. This set into motion the Rapid Response plan 

developed 7 months earlier in a REEF sponsored multi agency workshop (see REEFNotes article). Becky came by the REEF office, the images were verified, and her detailed site description was conveyed to Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects. The report was forwarded to the US Geological USGS alert system and Lad began response coordination with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) who has jurisdiction of resources at the sighting location.

The following morning, the response team made up of Lad Akins, Lisa Mitchell (REEF Exec. Dir.), John Halas (FKNMS), Frazier Nivens (Ocean Imaging) and Steve Campbell (Quiescence Diving Services) were assembled and on site at 10:30am. Following the excellent location description provided by Becky, the team was able to locate the fish, capture video footage, gather important data on site characteristics and the available nearby prey community, capture and bag the fish in under 14 minutes. The fish was captured live via hand nets, brought back to shore, euthanized and dissected. The 99mm immature male contained one 34mm prey fish in its stomach. Tissue samples, genetic material and other measurements were collected for further analysis by researchers at the NOAA Beaufort lab and Simon Fraser University. No other lionfish were found in the immediate vicinity.

While no one wanted to see lionfish show up in the Florida Keys, most knowledgeable sources believed it was inevitable and simply a matter of time. The one bright side of this story is that advanced planning and preparation initiated by REEF resulted in the awareness, accurate reporting, and successful rapid response effort that removed the fish less than 24 hours after its initial sighting. Hopes are that as lionfish show up in the Keys and other downstream areas, these rapid response efforts will help to control establishments and minimize impacts of this glutinous predator.

REEF continues to encourage divers to report their sightings of lionfish and other non-native fishes with as much detail as possible to www.reef.org/lionfish and to support lionfish research projects such as the January 17-24 project in the Turks and Caicos and the June 13-20 project in Belize. For more information, contact Lad Akins (Lad@REEF.org) (305) 852-0030.

Know Your Flounder?

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Spiny Flounder (Engyophrys senta). Photo by Paul Humann.
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Eyed Flounder (Bothus ocellatus). Photo by Paul Humann.
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Danielle Calini, an Our World Underwater Scholar who spent this summer as an intern at REEF HQ, found a spiny flounder during a dive on Molasses Reef.

If you are a REEF surveyor in the Tropical Western Atlantic, you are probably familiar with the Peacock Flounder (Bothus lunatus). And if you spend much time in the sand, you probably even know about the smaller Eyed Founder (Bothus ocellatus)? But how about the Spiny Flounder (Engyophrys senta)? Danielle Calini, an Our World Underwater Scholar who spent this summer as an intern at REEF HQ in Key Largo, was one of several REEF surveyors who recently came across this rarely seen species during a dive on Molasses Reef. And while this was the first record of the Spiny Flounder in the REEF Florida Keys database, it turns out this species might not be as rare as we think.

Spiny Flounder are very similar in appearance to the common Eyed Flounder, and it's likely that surveyors might not be looking closely enough when they see the small flatfish scurrying across the sand. It was previously thought that cirri extending from the eyes were a key feature distinguishing the two species but the cirri are very difficult to see. According to Paul Humann, Spiny Founder can be distinguished from Eyed Flounder by three key features:

  • Eyes very close together.
  • Large diffuse midbody blotch on lateral line and often two less distinct blotches on lateral line, one in front and one in back of the midbody blotch.
  • Very small mouth extending back only as far as the front of the lower eye.
  • Body shape is elongated (vs. nearly circular in the Eyed Flounder).
  • REEF is proud to host an Our World Underwater Scholar each summer. In addition to tracking down rare species, OWU interns provide much needed help in the REEF HQ office and conduct outreach with the Florida Keys community. The REEF Staff and Board of Trustees extends a big fish thank you to Danielle in appreciation for her service to REEF in the Summer 2009.

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    Announcing the Release of Sensational Seas Two

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    Order your copy today through REEF's online store - http://www.reef.org/store/sensationalseastwo

    Five years ago, with a group of volunteers, I produced the first DVD volume of Sensational Seas, an anthology of underwater images as seen through the eyes of 25 filmmakers and photographers. Each filmmaker generously donated his or her work, which enabled us to turn those contributions into a great fundraiser for REEF. The DVD was a big success and when REEF staff mentioned in late 2008 that their supply was nearly gone, we knew it was time to produce another volume. Thanks to the Carrow Foundation, who provided the production funding, REEF will be beneficiary of the sales of a new DVD, Sensational Seas Two. The DVD is available for purchase from REEF through the online store -- http://www.reef.org/store/sensationalseastwo.

    In Sensational Seas Two, thirty divers from distinguished scientists and seasoned professionals to talented amateurs, take you on a grand tour of watery realms as far-flung as Antarctica, Australia, the Andaman Sea and Georgia Aquarium. Expect the unexpected, come face-to-face with the gentlest of giants, a rolling octopus, spawning frogfish, a snorkeling elephant, and tiny plankton that epitomize the grandeur of nature’s artistic flair. We like to say this collected work is a fitting way to express just why we love to dive.

    A lot has changed since our first production in 2004. Online sites like YouTube provide venues for people to share their videos and social networking enables us to share links to myriad underwater images. What sets Sensational Seas Two apart is the cooperative effort between underwater filmmakers, photographers, musicians, graphic designers, writers and programmers - all divers – who donated their skills and art to produce this spectacular collection of underwater images, for the benefit of marine environmental causes.

    All of the proceeds from every Sensational Seas Two DVD purchased from the REEF store will go directly to REEF. Your purchase will help REEF continue its important work. Thank you for your support and enjoy the show!

    To learn about the DVD and the people who donated their time and images to Sensational Seas Two, visit www.SensationalSeas.com. For a preview of Sensational Seas Two, watch the trailer on YouTube here.

    REEF and Florida Keys Sanctuary Kick Off Lionfish Derbies This Weekend

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    The largest lionfish captured during a day-long derby in the Bahamas.
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    Lionfish are being found more frequently in the Florida Keys. This one was reported in August from Conch Reef. Photo by Neal Rakov.

    Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) with help from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) will host an inaugural series of lionfish derbies in the Keys starting this weekend. Divers who remove lionfish from Sanctuary waters will be eligible for more than $10,000 in cash and prizes. Awards will go to the top 3 teams in the following categories: most lionfish, biggest lionfish, and smallest lionfish.

    REEF and Sanctuary managers have been working with the Florida Keys dive community to remove invasive lionfish since early 2009. Scientists are concerned about the rapid population growth of lionfish in Keys waters and their lack of a natural predator in the Atlantic. Lionfish are known to feed on ecologically and commercially important fish species — including snapper, grouper and shrimp — and can disrupt the balance of the marine ecosystem.

    “Current research is beginning to show that, if left unchecked, the impacts of lionfish could be devastating to our native marine life and coral reefs,” said Lad Akins, REEF Director of Operations. “Providing training and incentives for the public to remove lionfish is one way to control populations and minimize those impacts.” Following detailed briefings by REEF staff on lionfish collecting and handling, divers will be allowed to collect fish on the day of the tournament using hand nets or spearfishing gear in areas of the sanctuary where fishing and spearfishing is allowed. A new rule was just passed July 27th, 2010 that enables divers to collect lionfish with hand nets throughout Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo.

    The $100 derby registration fee for a four-person team of divers or snorkelers provides participants with a pair of puncture resistant gloves and banquet tickets. Event banquets will feature a lionfish tasting for derby participants and guests. These derbies are not only a great way to reduce local lionfish populations, but also serve to educate and engage the public in lionfish control efforts.

    “Eating lionfish is a conservation activity,” said Sean Morton, acting FKNMS Superintendent. “We are its only known predator in the Atlantic and through dedicated diver-based removal efforts, and consumption of lionfish as a food source, we can control its establishment.” NOAA has even developed an “Eat Lionfish” campaign that brings together fishing communities, wholesalers, and chefs in an effort to broaden U.S. consumers’ awareness of this delicious invader.

    For more information on REEF's lionfish research program, the derbies, and to register online, visit www.reef.org/lionfish. Dates and locations for the derbies are: September 11 – Coconuts Restaurant, Key Largo • October 16 – Keys Fisheries Market and Marina, Marathon • November 13 — Hurricane Hole Marina, Key West. Florida Keys lionfish derbies are sponsored in part by: Ocean Reef Conservation Association, Divers Direct, Spree Expeditions, Inc., Dive Key West, Inc., and Scuba-Do Dive Company. To become an event sponsor, please contact Alecia@reef.org. REEF-coordinated lionfish derbies in the Bahamas have removed almost 2,500 lionfish since 2009. Thousands more fish have been captured in more than 30 REEF-organized lionfish collection trips across the Caribbean. Because of REEF’s vast experience with lionfish control programs, the Florida Keys Lionfish Derbies are destined for success!

    Join REEF Online Communities

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    Remember to join REEF in our online communities on Facebook. Anyone can visit our Facebook page, even if you don't have a Facebook account. We also maintain a Facebook page specifically about the Lionfish program. If you do have a Facebook account, click the icon below to "like" us!

    Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Cape Eleuthera Institute

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

    The Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), a marine research facility, is located at the south end of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Much like REEF, CEI realizes the importance of collaboration and encourages students, visitors, and community members alike to partake in ongoing scientific research with the overarching goal of marine conservation.

    CEI works closely and shares facilities with the Island School, a semester abroad program for high-school students. All of the research programs that operate out of CEI teach a project-specific research class each semester to the students. REEF surveys have been successfully incorporated into a number of these projects. Most notably, the Patch Reef Ecology project uses REEF surveys for long-term monitoring of fish communities that are resident to the network of patch reefs in Rock Sound, the vast, watery, “backyard” of CEI. REEF surveys have been used to collect reef fish species and abundance data for this project for nearly a decade now! Students assisting with the data collection learn Caribbean reef fish ID skills and become well versed in the REEF Roving Diver Method. All data collected by students are contributed to the REEF database and available for use by others.

    Most of the reefs that are surveyed by students are located in shallow waters adjacent to mangrove creek habitat. These reefs are small, isolated coral heads that provide important transitional habitat for many reef species that begin their life in mangroves and eventually head to deep water to reproduce. Due to their location and abundance, these reefs are easy to access and make great project sites for conducting research. In fact, Lad Akins, REEF’s Director of Special Projects, and Stephanie Green of Simon Frasier University, are conducting a long-term research project monitoring lionfish impacts on reef fish communities using a network of these shallow scattered patch reefs. Skylar Miller, employed by both REEF and CEI and based in Eleuthera, is responsible for monthly data collection for this important project.

    Visit REEF at a Dive Show Near You!

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    We have a full line-up of dive show appearances planned this year. If you are in the area of one of these shows, please stop by the REEF booth to find out what new and exciting things are happening. In 2012, we will be at: Our World Underwater (Chicago, February 17-19), Beneath the Sea (NJ/NY, March 23-25), Northwest Dive & Travel Expo (WA, April 21-22), SCUBA Show 2012 (Long Beach CA, May 5-6), and Northern California Dive & Travel Expo (Bay Area CA, May 12-13). We are always looking for volunteers to help at the booth. If you are interested in being a REEF ambassador, contact Martha at martha@REEF.org.

    The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Douglas and Jane Rorex

    Yellowtail Damselfish. Photo by Alex Griffin.

    As we celebrate REEF Member #50,000, it is exciting to also look back to the beginning. This month we feature two of our charter members, Douglas and Jane Rorex (REEF Members #25 and #26). Nineteen years ago this month they were diving in the Florida Keys and happened upon information about what was to be the first REEF Survey Project class in July 1993. They couldn't attend that one, but they did attend a class a few months later. Since then, Douglas and Jane have conducted over 400 surveys combined. Here's what they 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?

    We still have the letter from Laddie Akins confirming our being a part of this second class, that took place starting 17 October 1993. The week-long project included 12 dives and surveys along with the daily lessons. It was a blast. It was the best course we had ever had in Scuba in that it enabled us to enjoy our diving ever so much more as we came to recognize what we were actually seeing. Ned DeLoach, Paul Humann, Gloria Teague, and Laddie Akins were all wonderful. Laddie was our primary teacher and has been a mentor, friend, and teacher ever since. Over the years, REEF has continued to provide educational materials, and those combined with books by Ned and Paul have expanded our enjoyment from not only identifying fish, but also watching their behavior. We really enjoyed diving with Ned and Anna DeLoach this past year, where we kept an eye on a pair of courting Frogfish.

    Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?

    Most of our Midwest diving involves quarries, lakes, cowponds, caves (springs), and/or rivers. I (Doug) have done all of the former, but presently do most of my local diving in Missouri caves. There is a sense of adventure and exploration and accomplishment in cave diving that is somewhat missing from most cowponds, plus you don't have to run the cattle out of the cave before you dive. The fish life is not as abundant, but there is plenty to see. Cannonball Cave in Missouri is the cave I have explored most thoroughly. I have explored back more than a 1/4 mile and to a depth of 365 feet. The cave is stunning and has beautiful clay formations that are breath-taking.

    What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

    The juvenile Yellowtail Damsel. We called it by the name "Jewel" fish when we first started diving. Our signal to each other identifying the fish is to hold out one hand and peck on it with the forefinger of the other hand indicating the bright, jewel like dots that adorn the juvenile. We usually spend time at the end of each dive in the shallows among the fire coral on Bonaire looking at interesting fish and creatures, but the tiny Yellowtail Damsels is our favorite. I suppose its our favorite because of its stunning beauty and its also nice getting to see your favorite fish every dive.

    What is your most memorable fish find? Is there a fish (or Marine invertebrate) you haven't seen yet diving, but would like to?

    Diving Bonaire in the middle 1990's we kept seeing this tiny goby. I drew it and sent the drawing along with a description to Laddie Akins. Laddie had previously identified dozens of fish for us in this manner, (for example, the Cave Bass and the Black Brotula), and, that he could do it was amazing. This fish he eventually identified as an "Island Goby." It was eventually recognized as the same fish by a previous name: "the Semi-scale Goby." I have drawings of it in log pages from those early days and still think of it as an Island Goby, though, on survey sheets I list it otherwise.

    We have not seen either a Whale Shark or a Shortnose Batfish. But we're keeping the dream alive...and they are out there awaiting us.

    Spaces Available on REEF Trips in 2013, Including Last Minute Opening on Fiji Trip

    Snag the last spot on the Fiji REEF Trip and you'll spend a lovely 10 days aboard the Nai'a.

    If you haven't yet booked your space on one of our 2013 REEF Field Surveys, don't delay. They are filling up fast. A last minute opening is available on the Fiji trip aboard the Nai'a liveaboard, May 11-21 - we just had a cancellation, so if you want to join REEF Founder Paul Humann, REEF Director of Science Christy Semmens, and a boat full of enthusiastic South Pacific fishwatchers, get in touch with our travel agent at Caradonna right away - 1-877-295-REEF (7333) or REEF@caradonna.com. Final payment and paperwork are due by the end of next week so don't delay, this space won't last long. Space is for male or female, single room accommodations. All the Fiji details are here, we hope you can join us!

    Other trips that still have a few spaces include: Southern Bahamas Lionfish Trip (May 18-25), Little Cayman with Paul Humann (July 13-20), Curacao Lionfish Trip (Aug 31-Sept 7), Grenada (Oct 5-12), Socorro Islands (Dec 3-12), and Cozumel (Dec 7-14). We have also added two new trips in British Columbia, one along the Sunshine Coast and a second trip to Barkley Sound. Visit www.REEF.org/trips for information and details on all of these great trips.

    Honoring Our Golden Hamlet Club Members

    No, it's not a club of Shakespearean enthusiasts! Rather it's a club of citizen scientist superstars - those REEF members who have conducted 1,000+ surveys in the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project. The very first Golden Hamlet member was Linda Baker, achieving the status in 2005. Today, there are are sixteen members of the Golden Hamlet Club. We recently created a plaque, now hanging at REEF HQ in Key Largo, with the names of our honored volunteer surveyors -- Lad Akins, Linda Baker, Judie Clee, Janet Eyre, Dave Grenda, Doug Harder, Lillian Kenney, Peter Leahy, Rob McCall, Franklin Neal, Mike Phelan, Bruce Purdy, Linda Ridley, Dee Scarr, Linda Schillinger, and Sheryl Shea. Congratulations to you all. Thanks to their dedication, and those of the 14,000 other volunteers who have participated in the Survey Project since its inception in 1993, we have generated the largest marine fish sightings database in the world. Who's going to be the next Golden Hamlet surveyor?

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub