Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease

A healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important predator in the kelp forests of the US and Canadian west coast. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A Sunflower Sea Star that has succumbed to wasting disease. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Green Sea Urchin populations have increased in areas where Sunflower Sea Stars have declined. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Sea star wasting disease has devastated sea star populations on the West coast from Mexico to Alaska. The disease broke out in 2013, causing massive death of several species of sea stars. Infected animals develop lesions that eat away tissue, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. The disease has been linked to a virus, although environmental factors may also be involved.

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE, presents an analysis of REEF survey data on several asteroid species collected by divers in the Salish Sea over the last 10 years. The Salish Sea is a Canadian / United States transboundary marine ecosystem, and world-wide hotspot for temperate asteroid species diversity with a high degree of endemism.

The results showed that some species were hit hard, while others increased in number. Populations of Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important keystone predator in the region, dropped dramatically after the beginning of the epidemic. Several other sea star species, including the Spiny Pink Star (Pisaster brevispinus) also declined. Numbers of the less-common Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata) and two species of sea urchin, which are prey for sea stars, increased after 2013.

The virus outbreak continues, and will have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Sunflower Sea Stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes. Likely as a result, numbers of urchins have increased, which in turn will lead to more browsing on kelp. As a result, study co-author, Dr. Joe Gaydos, and his colleagues are currently in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the Sunflower Sea Star listed as a “species of concern.”

The paper, titled "Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids", is available online here. Another study published earlier this year in the journal, PeerJ, used the REEF data to evaluate the potential trophic impacts of the seastar decline, as seen in the increase in sea urchins. That paper is availble here. View the entire list of all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

2018 REEF Trips Schedule Coming Soon!

Much fun was had on REEF's first ever Field Survey trip to the Solomon Islands last month.

We have been working hard the last few months on our 2018 REEF Field Survey Trips schedule, and it's almost ready! We have a great line-up of destinations in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Eastern Pacific, Tropical Western Pacific, and even the Indian Ocean. In addition to our usual fish ID trips and lionfish research trips, we are adding a new eco-adventure trip next year perfect for the entire family. Keep an eye on your inbox for our special announcement next week. If you haven't yet been on a REEF Trip, these are a great way to "Take a Dive Vacation That Counts". Each trip is led by an expert and the itinerary features daily diving, learning, and fun. Check out www.REEF.org/trips for more details.

Home Grown REEF Clubs! FIN and Pacific Northwest Critter Watchers

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FIN members gathered at Maluaka Beach in July for a Great Annual Fish Count dive.
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FIN members, Liz Foote and Josh Wittmer (who is also a previous REEF Marine Conservation Intern and now works for the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui), getting ready for a FIN-organized REEF dive at Honolua Bay earlier this month.

We say it often - REEF is what it is because of our fantastic members.  The grassroots nature of the organization is reflected in all aspects of our work, including the amazing volunteers like Audrey Smith who help with daily operating tasks at REEF HQ, the networks of regional REEF partners who enlist new REEF members and provide continuing education and survey opportunities for active surveyors, our members who generously support REEF with financial donations, and of course the thousands of survey volunteers who submit marine life surveys each year. 

As the corps of active and experienced REEF surveyors has grown, we have been fortunate to have some of those members take their support and interest in REEF to the next level by forming local REEF groups.  Two such REEF "clubs" are FIN (the Fish Identification Network)  and the Pacific Northwest Critter Watchers.  FIN is a REEF club based in Maui, and is touted as an opportunity to join friends and fellow fish lovers in exploring the coral reefs of Maui.  The club is for all interested divers and snorklers, and promotes marine conservation and the objectives of REEF.  FIN was founded by Terri and Mike Fausnaugh (Mike is also a member of the REEF Hawaii Advanced Assessment Team (AAT)) and is supported by the cadre of REEFers that REEF partner, Liz Foote of Project S.E.A.-Link, has generated in Hawaii through the years.  There are monthly (sometimes weekly) FIN dives at various beaches on Maui and at every event FIN folks set up a REEF station on the beach with survey materials and identification reference guides in an attempt to lure in new afishianados!  The PNW Critter Watchers encourages all divers in Washington and Oregon to become underwater naturalists.  Through training and quarterly REEF survey dives, Critter Watcher founders and REEF Pacific AAT members, Janna Nichols and Wes Nicholson, aim to put the fun in critter watching and promote REEF surveying in the Pacific Northwest.  Janna also maintains a Critter Watchers website that includes a fish of the month feature, an events listing, unusual sightings reported by fellow Critter Watchers, and congratulations to REEF surveyors who have advanced through the REEF experience level system.

These home-grown REEF clubs are a great way to help spread the fun and enjoyment of REEF surveying to a local dive community.  We are grateful that we have such enthusiastic and supportive volunteers who are willing to help spread the REEF word.  These on-the-ground activities could never be accomplished without your help!

Enter Your REEF Survey Data Online

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Are you a REEF surveyor along the US & Canadian West Coast or Hawaii? If so, you can now enter your survey data online.

Are you a REEF surveyor along the US and Canadian West coast or Hawaii? If so, did you know that you can now enter your data ONLINE! No more scanforms (unless you really want to use them - they'll still work – although note that there will be a fee to purchase scanforms beginning in 2008). No more scrounging around to find a pencil. No more stamps and trips to the post office. All you need to do is click on Submit Data Online under the Database menu and you're on your way. Entering data online is not only easy for you, it greatly eases the workload on the limited REEF staff, enhances the quality of the data and reduces typographical errors, and most importantly, it greatly decreases the processing time from 8 weeks or more for paper scanforms to typically within 2 weeks from the time of online submission.

REEF plans to add the Northeast (Virginia through Newfoundland) and the Tropical Eastern Pacific (Baja Mexico to the Galapagos Islands) regions to the online submission program over the next few months in order for all of our program regions to be covered by this convenient data management feature.

REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures and Previews 2009 Field Survey Season

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REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures
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Kayla Serotte Conducting REEF Survey
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Linda Schillinger Surveying in Turks and Caicos Islands
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Joe Cavanaugh Surveying Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

REEF is happy to announce our new partnership with Caradonna Dive Adventures as our travel provider, beginning with our 2009 Field Survey Season.  As many of you already know, Caradonna brings years of dive travel acumen and great vendor partnerships, both of which will undoubtedly assist REEF in making our Field Survey Program once again our signature Citizen Science program.  

After all, it is each of you that make all that REEF does in and out of the water possible.  We are closing in on 120,000 Fish Surveys in our world-renowned fish sightings database.  Christy Semmens (REEF Director of Science) and I individually review all of the 1,000 plus surveys entered into the database every month.  We know all of you by name but it is only on our Field Programs that REEF Staff and Board members have the opportunity to put the names to the faces and share the fish surveying exhilaration with you. 

Many of you who use dive travel services have probably used Caradonna in the past and know how good they are at setting up exhilarating dive trips. With Caradonna, you'll almost have a third dive buddy right there with you, wherever you might be! We are previewing our 2009 Season (below) and will be posting additional details and more trips to the website in the coming weeks.   Doris Pfister at Caradonna will serve as our REEF liaison. Doris and I have worked hard these past couple of months to coordinate this exciting schedule.

So without further ado, a preview -

2009 Field Survey Schedule Preview

  • St. Lucia - February 21-28, 2009 with Anse Chastanet Resort, 12-dive all-inclusive package, led by Lisa Mitchell, REEF Executive Director
  • Grenada - July 11-18, 2009 aboard Peter Hughes Wind Dancer, led by Paul Humann
  • St. Croix May 9-16, 2009, with Cane Bay Dive Shop and Carambola Resorts
  • Curacao - October 17-24, 2009 with Sunset Waters Beach Resort
  • Cozumel - December 5-12, 2009 with Aqua Safari and Safari Inn, led by Sheryl Shea

Additional destinations that we are working on include St. Vincent, Maui (Hawaii), Bermuda with Ned DeLoach, and Cancun.  Stay tuned to the REEF Trips webpage.

For all bookings, please contact Doris Pfister, our REEF Dedicated Sales Consultant at REEF@caradonna.com or by phone at 1-877-295-REEF(7333). Details and more trips will be added in the next few weeks and months, so please check the REEF Trips webpage often.

Have you ever wondered how trip locations are decided?  There is a suite of considerations for Field Survey locations, including REEF data needs, diving and tourist infrastructure, costs (evermore important with rising travel costs), partnership and outreach opportunities, fish abundance and diversity, invasive species, educational value, resource management needs, and yes, fun too!  In 2009, REEF staff are planning improvements to our Field Survey program including increased capacity building while the REEF group is onsite and after the trip is over, and increasing the opportunities for resource managers to partner with REEF and utilize the valuable data you collect.  By fostering regional capacity building efforts wherein local stakeholders begin to carry the surveying efforts beyond single events, there is increased likelihood these data will be used for ongoing management decisions. 

120,000! And Counting

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A REEF surveyor records a school of grunts. Photo by Paul Humann.
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REEF volunteer, Dana Haggarty, reviews her data after a survey dive in Monterey Bay.
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REEF data have been used in the stock assessment of Goliath grouper. Photo by Paul Humann.

REEF eclipsed a milestone this week when the REEF Volunteer Survey Project Database passed the 120,000 survey mark.  This represents over 150,000 hours of underwater survey time from our volunteers.  The achievement comes almost 15 years to the day when the first REEF fish survey was conducted off Key Largo, Florida, on July 17, 1993.  Today, the program is going strong throughout the coastal areas of North and Central America, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Galapagos Islands and Hawaii. In the tropical western Atlantic region alone, 96,469 surveys have been conducted at 6,085 sites and 795 fish species have been recorded.  Of course, improving your marine life identification skills, building your lifelist of sighted species, and conducting surveys are a lot of fun.  But have you ever wondered what good are all of these data?  

Volunteer data collection, or citizen science, provides a valuable alternative for scientists and resource agencies needing information but lacking sufficient resources to gather it. In addition, involvement in data collection leads to greater awareness about marine resources and creates a stewardship ethic among key user groups.

In addition to providing data summaries on the REEF Website, REEF staff provide raw data to scientists and resource agencies.  REEF data have been used in the development of stock assessments (Kingsley 2004), in the evaluation of trends of fish species (Semmens et al. 2000), to measure the effect of marine protected areas on kelp forest fish communities (Semmens et al. in prep) and coral reefs (REEF 2003), as an indicator of population pressure on natural resources (Burke and Maidens 2004), to evaluate interactions between species and species-habitat relationships (Auster et al. 2005), to asses the effect of restoration efforts in areas of damaged reef (REEF 2008), and to asses the status of a group of reef fish species that is experiencing significant declines (Ward-Paige et al., in prep A and B).  REEF volunteers have been instrumental in the identification and removal of exotic species (Semmens et al. 2004), in the identification of new species (Taylor and Akins 2007; Weaver and Rocha 2007) and morphological variants of known species (Pattengill-Semmens 1999), and in the documentation of previously unrecorded range extensions (M. Taylor and J. Van Tassel, Pers. Comm.). PDFs of most of these articles and a full listing of scientific papers and reports that have used REEF data are included in the Publications section of the REEF Website.

REEF extends a big thank you to the 10,000+ volunteers who have contributed to this database over the years and we are looking forward to the next 120,000 surveys!  Be sure to visit the Top 10 Stats page to see a quick rundown  of REEF survey activity.  You can also explore the data more in-depth by visiting the Database section of the REEF.org Website.

Peter Hughes Belize Lionfish Invasion Trip

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The upcoming Peter Hughes Belize Lionfish awareness/outreach trip turns to lionfish research/removal after the first lionfish was discovered in Central American waters. Join REEF aboard the Sun Dancer II from June 13-20 for this exciting and fun diving adventures. Following eye opening presentations by REEF staff and partners at the recent DEMA dive show in October, long-time supporter Peter Hughes took on a new mission - to support REEF's efforts in addressing the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. With his world-renowned fleet of liveaboard dive vessels and concern for the marine environment, Peter became an instant supporter after hearing details of the invasion. In stepping up to the plate, he offered his Belize-based liveaboard, Sun Dancer II, as a platform to raise funds and increase awareness of the issue during a June 13-20 expedition. Little did he know that within 2 short months, lionfish would actually show up in Belize in advance of our planned project.

Sun Dancer II instructors, leading a group of divers on Turneffe Reef, spotted a juvenile lionfish on December 11, 2008. Subsequent dives provided images verifying the sighting and Sun Dancer Captain Ryan Barnett, who had previously worked with REEF during Bahamas lionfish projects, put the early warning system into action through his report to REEF HQ. While the fish has yet to be recovered, Sun Dancer staff now have divers on the lookout and are stocking the vessel with collecting supplies.

While the fundraising efforts of the June project remain, the focus of the June project has now shifted to include more detailed data gathering and collection of any lionfish specimens found. Additional workshops are being organized with Belizean authorities to assist in development and implementation of their lionfish response plan. For those interested in joining the June 13-20 project aboard the Sun Dancer, please view the project webpage or contact Peter Hughes Diving directly at (800) 9-DANCER.  For more information on the lionfish issue and to support REEF's efforts, go to www.reef.org/lionfish or contact Lad Akins (Lad@REEF.org) (305) 852-0030.

Exciting Schedule of REEF Trips Planned For 2010

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REEF Field Survey Participants at the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman in 2006.
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REEF trip participants enjoy hanging out and diving with like-minded individuals, while learning more about ocean life.

We are excited to announce a great line-up of destinations for REEF's 2010 Field Survey Travel Schedule. These fun and educational eco-dive trips are part of REEF's Volunteer Survey Project and they are the perfect way to "Make a Dive That Counts". The week-long trips are a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow fishwatchers. Trips are led by REEF staff and other REEF instructors and feature daily classroom seminars and a full diving schedule. We are featuring several new destinations, including the northern Baja Peninsula and Roatan, as well as returning to some of our member's favorites like Dominica and Grand Cayman. Several specialty trips are also being offered in 2010, including invasive lionfish research projects and reef fish behavior tours.

REEF Trip Schedule 2010 -- Prices, package details and more available soon.

  • Dominica with Dive Dominica and Ft. Young Hotel -- April 17-24, 2010. Led by Heather George.
  • Belize with Sun Dancer II Liveaboard -- May 1-8, 2010. Lionfish Research Expedition, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes.
  • Bahamas with Aqua Cat Liveaboard -- June 12-19, 2010. Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach.
  • Roatan with Turquoise Bay Resort -- July 17-24, 2010. Led by Paul Humann.
  • Cozumel with Aqua Safari and Safari Inn -- August 14-21, 2010. Led by Sheryl Shea.
  • Key Largo with Amoray Dive Center -- August 26 - September 2, 2010. Sea Critter Seminar, Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach.
  • Bonaire with Buddy Dive Resort -- September 26 - October 2, 2010. Field Survey and Coral Spawning Expedition, Led by Jessie Armacost.
  • Sea of Cortez/Baja Mexico with Rocio del Mar Liveaboard -- October 9-16, 2010. Led by Drs. Christy and Brice Semmens.
  • Grand Cayman with Dive Tech and Colbalt Coast -- November 6-13, 2010. Led by Lad Akins.
  • To inquire about a trip and to book your space, please contact our REEF Dedicated Sales Consultant at REEF@caradonna.com or by phone at 1-877-295-REEF(7333). Additional details will be added to the REEF Trips webpage soon, so check back often. Book early, trips often fill up!

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    REEF Welcomes New Board Member

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    Welcome to Marty Snyderman, new REEF Board of Trustee Member.

    We are pleased to welcome Marty Snyderman to our Board of Trustees. Marty is an EMMY Award winning cinematographer, still photographer, author and speaker. He currently serves as the Marine Life Editor for Dive Training Magazine and is the long time author of the magazine’s monthly “What’s That”, “Always Learning”, and “Behind the Lens” columns. He is the 2008 recipient of DEMA’s (Dive Equipment Marketing Association) Reaching Out Award and joined the ranks of DEMA’s Hall of Fame. Many REEF members also know him for his co-produced shark identification DVD, Sharks and Their Kin.

    Board of Trustees member Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium recounts: “I met Marty when he joined our production company on an extended Alaskan expedition to document the elusive salmon shark. Despite record rainfall, backcountry camping, bears, a scarcity of sharks, and an unrelenting stench from decaying salmon, Marty’s passion for the adventure remained boundless. The more I learned about his knowledge of marine wildlife, and commitment to the marine environment, it became obvious that Marty would be a valuable addition to the REEF Board.”

    As a resident of Solana Beach, California, Marty joins Board member Heather George and Pacific Northwest staff as REEF continues to expand its mission on the west coast. Marty, Welcome Aboard!

    REEF Data Featured in New Scientific Publication on Shark Population Status

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    Blacktip sharks are one of the 14 species that were analyzed in the recently published paper. Photo (c) Paul Humann.
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    REEF data are well suited for rarely seen species like sharks because of the wide geographic coverage by REEF volunteers. Photo by Ned DeLaoch.

    REEF Fish Survey Project data were recently featured in a paper in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, Large-Scale Absence of Sharks on Reefs in the Greater-Caribbean: A Footprint of Human Pressures. The study's authors evaluated the status of 14 species of sharks in the Caribbean. In recent decades, large pelagic and coastal shark populations have declined dramatically with increased fishing. However, the status of sharks in other systems such as coral reefs remains largely unassessed despite a long history of exploitation. The paper's authors used REEF data to explore the contemporary distribution and sighting frequency of sharks on reefs in the greater-Caribbean, and assessed the possible role of human pressures on observed patterns.

    The analysis was based on 76,340 underwater surveys carried out by REEF volunteers between 1993 and 2008. REEF data are well suited for rarely seen species like sharks because of the wide geographic coverage by REEF volunteers.The authors compared sighting frequency to the number of people in each area surveyed, and used population viability analyses to assess the effects of exploitation on population trends. Sharks, with the exception of nurse sharks, occurred mainly in areas with very low human population or strong fishing regulations and marine conservation. Population viability analysis suggests that exploitation alone could explain the large-scale absence; however, this pattern is likely to be exacerbated by additional anthropogenic stressors, such as pollution and habitat degradation, that also correlate with human population. Preventing further loss of sharks requires urgent management measures to curb fishing mortality and to mitigate other anthropogenic stressors to protect sites where sharks still exist. The fact that sharks still occur in some densely populated areas where strong fishing regulations are in place indicates the possibility of success and encourages the implementation of conservation measures.

    A PDF of the full paper can be downloaded here. The citation is Ward-Paige CA, Mora C, Lotze HK, Pattengill-Semmens C, McClenachan L, et al. (2010) Large-Scale Absence of Sharks on Reefs in the Greater-Caribbean: A Footprint of Human Pressures. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11968. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011968. To see a complete list of papers and other publications featuring REEF data, visit the REEF Publications page.

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub