Believe It Or Not -- REEF Volunteers Grow a Coral Reef

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REEF volunteers measure their staghorn coral transplants.
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Ken Nedimyer clip a coral fragment from a "mother" colony for use as a transplant.
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A staghorn coral "garden" created with transplant fragments off Key Largo, FL. REEF volunteers helped create several of the coral modules last month.
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Ken, wife Denise and daughter Julia pose behind one of their remarkable coral creations.

During the last week of April, divers from around the country gathered at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Florida for a REEF Fish Behavior Tour hosted by Ned and Anna DeLoach. After making two morning dives each day, the group spent their late afternoons and early evenings attending entertaining talks about the myriad fish they encountered on the reef. Lad Akins, REEF’s Special Projects Director, dropped by to explain the science behind the recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish in the western Atlantic. But the highlight of the week was the rare opportunity for everyone to create their own coral garden.

Yes, you read it right: After being giving instructions by coral scientist Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation, participants headed out the following morning to Ken’s coral nursery located in Hawke Channel where they transplanted cuttings of staghorn coral from a mother colony onto a set of nursery blocks.

After watching 90 percent of the Keys’ staghorn coral die off from a variety of reasons over the past decades, Ken, an aquaculturist by trade, decided to do something about the disheartening problem. In the late 1990’s, he began nurturing small buds of rapidly growing staghorn that by chance settled on his underwater “live rock” farm. Following several years of trial and error, Ken pioneered the first successful method for cultivating and transplanting large quantities of coral. His current success rate hovers at an incredible 90 percent.

After the REEF divers carefully epoxyed their branches on numerically coded pedestals and recorded measurement data, the group headed off to a site on Molasses Reef where, in 1984 the M/V Wellwood, an ocean-going freighter, ran aground destroying 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Federal agencies began extensive restoration of the site in 2002 including emplacement of numerous high-profile limestone modules (click here to read about REEF's post-restoration monitoring of the fish populations on these modules). Unfortunately, to date, the new structures have had limited success recruiting new coral growth. However, the area has one extraordinary success story and the focus of our second dive: Ken’s rapidly growing staghorn coral garden – the two-year result of transplanting nursery grown corals to the grounding site.

Dates for next year’s 2nd Annual Key Largo REEF Fish Behavior Tour at Amoray are scheduled for May 29 to June 5, 2009. The popular fish behavior talks cover Reproductive Strategies, What Fish Eat, Cleaning Stations, Discovering the Night Reef, and Fish Life Cycles. Participants will once again establish their own coral colonies and transplant this year’s nursery crop onto the reef.

REEF Surveyor Notes a Rare Find

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A mystery fish, captured on film by REEF surveyor Rob McCall.
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The mystery fish turned out to be the rarely seen Pugjaw Wormfish.
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The swimming motion was sinuous, much like an eel.
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The wormfish shared a burrow with a yellowhead jawfish.

REEF TWA Advanced Assessment Team member, Rob McCall, has over 625 surveys under his belt and 281 fish species on his lifelist. But earlier this summer, during a dive in the Florida Keys, he found something that surprised him - the extremely rare Pugjaw Wormfish (Cerdale floridana). Here is his story -- Last June, while diving at Rock Key off Key West, I noticed a very slender (about the diameter of thin drinking straw) white fish about 6 cm long. I could see the fish had a rounded head but could not see dorsal or tail fins. The fish swam with a sinuous movement, much like an eel or worm, and dove into a burrow when it saw me. It did not immediately reappear and I soon swam off in search of other fish. That night I attempted to identify the mystery fish in my reference books, but was unable to get even a rough idea of what it might be.

Subsequent to the first sighting, I saw a similar fish on two other occasions at Rock Key. All sightings were within an area about 8 x 4 meters, with sand bottom bordered by high profile reef. On the second sighting, the fish dove into a burrow and did not reappear. On the third sighting, the fish immediately dove into a Yellowhead Jawfish burrow (the normal occupant was a male Yellowhead Jawfish who happened to be mouth-brooding eggs at the time; the jawfish was hovering above the burrow and did not seem particularly upset that the mystery fish “borrowed” his home.) The mystery fish did not reappear during the ten minutes or so I spent photographing the jawfish.

I stopped by REEF Headquarters in early August and asked Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, if he had any ideas to help me identify the fish. Based on my hazy description, Lad thought it might be a type of worm-eel. But when I researched online, it did not seem to be a good fit.

On August 22, while diving at Nine Foot Stake off Key West (and armed with my camera set up for macro) I came across one of the mystery fish – truly a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The fish was out in the open but dove into a nearby burrow – I don’t know if it was his or a “borrowed” one – when he saw me. I decided to wait a couple of minutes to see if it would reappear, and within a minute or two, it stuck its head back out. Over the next ten minutes it made several darting forays from the burrow, getting a little more used to me, or perhaps a little more desperate to get home. This fish seemed longer than the one(s) at Rock Key – perhaps 8 cm or so.

The four sightings shared some common features. All were at 20-24 ft. depth with sand bottom. Three of the four burrows were within 5-10 cm of small coral heads or rubble clumps. Dorsal and tail fins are visible in the photos; the fish is not actually as slender as it appears to the naked eye.

I was pretty well stumped over identifying what the fish was, even with photos, until one night I was re-reading Ned DeLoach and Paul Humman’s Reef Fish Behavior and under the article on Yellowhead Jawfish, I noticed a reference to Pugjaw Wormfish sharing a burrow with the jawfish. The next morning I researched it online and found a photo which appeared to be a very good match for my mystery fish.

We don’t know how rare the Pugjaw Wormfish might be, but according to the REEF database, they have been reported only five other times: one in Florida, one in Cuba and three in Bonaire. Convinced there are more Pugjaw’s waiting to make an appearance here in Key West, I’ve got the other instructors on our dive boat keeping their eyes open in the hopes that one of us will once again be in the right place at the right time.

Rob McCall is a scuba instructor in Key West and has been a REEF member and surveyor since 2000.

REEF Hits the Dive Shows!

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REEF Volunteers, April and Ron Theod talk REEF with a fellow diver while Tatum Semmens looks on.

REEF is taking our message on the road this spring and summer to a few of the regional dive shows. Last month, several volunteers and REEF Director of Science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, greeted visitors at the Northwest Dive and Travel Show in Tacoma, WA. The REEF booth provides an opportunity to spread the word about the fun of conducting marine life surveys and the valuable role that citizen science data can have in marine conservation and management. Our next stop is SCUBA Show 2009 in Long Beach, May 30 and 31. Come by and visit us at the booth!

REEF Trains Over 100 Divers in the Florida Keys As Permitted Lionfish Collectors

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Lad Akins demonstrates safe collection technique of the venomous lionfish during a workshop in the Florida Keys. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.
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Over 100 on-the-water professionals attended information sessions and training on the lionfish invasion. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.

REEF is working in close partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) to diligently track lionfish reports and initiate removal efforts in South Florida. The first confirmed lionfish in the Florida Keys was reported and captured within 24 hours in January 2009 (see previous enews article). Subsequent early reports in March-June were met with successful rapid response. However, beginning in July, reports began to increase beyond the capacity and range of available trained responders. To help combat the growing problem, REEF introduced over 100 on-the-water professionals to the latest lionfish information and collecting and handling techniques during workshops held in Key Largo, Marathon and Key West earlier this Fall. The workshops were funded by the NOAA Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

Because most Florida Keys reefs are managed under the guidance of the FKNMS and some of the most visited sites are no-take Sanctuary Protected Areas, special protocols and permits were developed to allow removal of lionfish in safe, effective and environmentally considerate manners. The goal of the program is to continue to track sightings and remove lionfish as soon as they are sighted to minimize impacts on key reef areas. Successful control of invasive lionfish requires adaptive management to include involving the general public and REEF is proud to be a part of this effort. With a large corps of dive professionals trained and additional workshops planned for early next year, the Keys are working to stay ahead of the invasion through early detection and rapid response. To report a lionfish sighting, visit REEF's Exotic Species Sighting Form -- http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report For more information on the program or to join in future workshops, contact Lad Akins at Lad@reef.org or call REEF HQ at (305) 852-0030.

News Tidbits

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REEF Field Surveys - Take a dive vacation that counts! There's still some space left on a few of the Field Surveys in 2010. Destinations include Cozumel with Sheryl Shea, Key Largo with Ned and Anna DeLoach, Bonaire with Jessie Armacost, and Grand Cayman with Lad Akins. These trips all offer unique treasures and are sure to please every level of diver as well as beauty above water for your non-diving companions. Join us on one of these exciting weeks full of fish ID, friendship, new discoveries and great memories! Our full field survey schedule, trip details, and sign up information can be found here.

New Field Stations - Welcome to our newest Field Stations who have joined us in the last month. Field Stations are shops, charters, instructors and organizations that support REEF in many ways - offering classes, REEF survey opportunities, stocking survey supplies, etc. For more information and to check out the other 170+ REEF Field Stations, go to the Field Station page on the REEF website.

  • Pacific Adventure Charters - Hood Canal, WA
  • Rendezvous Dive Adventures - Barkley Sound, BC Canada
  • DiveSafe International - Campbell River, BC Canada
  • Thunder Reef Divers - Vancouver, WA
  • 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