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.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub