Summer Lionfish Derby Series a Success in 2016

REEF Lionfish staff, Emily Stokes, measuring a lionfish at a derby this summer. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
A group of college students who created a Lionfish Derby team. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
Local chefs prepare lionfish to be served at a REEF Derby.

This summer seemed to fly by, and along with it went REEF’s 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series! It was an exciting summer full of “firsts” for the derby program. We added a fourth derby to the series, which we hosted in Sarasota in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. We also hosted our first Lionfish Culinary Competition in conjunction with the Palm Beach County Lionfish Derby, held at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, with support from the NUISANCE Group and Chef Chris Sherrill. The Sarasota and Palm Beach County derbies were full weekend events rather than single day removals, which gave competitors more time to get to sites that aren’t fished as often and to maximize the amount of lionfish removed. To top it all off, the Fort Lauderdale Derby teams brought in an astounding 1,250 lionfish in a single day! In all, the teams removed 2,426 lionfish during the REEF Lionfish Derbies in 2016. A whopping 18,560 lionfish have been removed in all REEF Derbies since 2009. Way to go teams. More stats below.

2016 Summer Series Derby Stats

Total Lionfish Removed:

Sarasota (July 9th & 10th) = 429

Fort Lauderdale (July 16th) = 1,250

Palm Beach County (August 13th & 14th) = 337

Upper Keys (September 10th) = 323

Total Lionfish Removed During 2016 Derby Series = 2,426

Total Lionfish Removed from ALL REEF Derbies (since 2009) = 18,560

Largest Lionfish Caught = 427 mm (~16.8 inches)

Smallest Lionfish Caught = 24 mm (~.94 inches)

Thank you to all of our 2016 Derby sponsors who made this series possible, including Diver’s Direct, Evolve Diving, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries, the Florida State Park Service, Ocean Reef Conservation Commission, and ZooKeeper! The 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series was funded in part by a grant awarded from Mote Marine Laboratory’s Protect Our Reefs Grants Program, which is funded by proceeds from the sale of the Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate. To learn more, visit

The Faces of REEF: Deb Hebblewhite

Deb working hard on the Micronesia REEF Trip in 2016.
Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray. Photo courtesy WikiCommons, by Jens Petersen.

REEF members are at the heart of our marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Deb Hebblewhite, a REEF member since 1999. Deb lives in Denver, Colorado. She has conducted 129 surveys and has participated in several REEF Field Survey Trips. Here's what Deb had to say about REEF:

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

I was in Cozumel in the 90’s when I first discovered a copy of Paul and Ned’s early Caribbean Fish ID book. I was so very excited to be able to start identifying the creatures I was seeing underwater. It definitely made SCUBA so much more enjoyable for me. I don’t remember how I found out about it but my first REEF trip was an intro to surveying trip led by Lad in Key Largo in August of 2002. The main reason I signed up for that trip was the advertised chance to see the Coral Spawn. We ventured out late one night and the corals waited until we were almost out of bottom time before they finally started popping. It was a new and magical experience for my dive buddy and I. I hope to have the chance to see that again one day.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?

As cool as the Coral Spawn was, my favorite experience on a REEF trip came in the Sea of Cortez in 2008. In the middle of the afternoon we came upon a huge bait ball. I don’t recall the type of fish but this bait ball was larger than anything I had ever seen. It remained in the same location for quite awhile so we were able to dive it twice. On the second dive I spent a good amount of time just sitting on the bottom looking up in awe at the amazing, swirling tangle of life above me.

Is there a fish you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

Surprisingly there were no large fish feeding on that bait ball I saw in the Sea of Cortez. The one fish I would really like to see while diving is any type of billfish. There is something about their speed and power that I find fascinating. I’m going back to the Sea of Cortez with REEF in August so maybe there will be another bait ball and I will get my chance to eye that billfish.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

I love all kinds of rays, especially Manta Rays, mainly for their grace moving through the water. When I dove the Red Sea I encountered Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and they are some of the most memorable animals for me. They are just so pretty and colorful.

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

I live in Colorado so don’t do much diving locally. I don’t really have an ultimate favorite place. I enjoy traveling to new destinations but since I’ve been to Dominica three times I would have to say it’s my favorite Caribbean location. Though I get a good amount of vacation time I have several other interests that I travel for so some years I only go on one dive trip. However, 2016 was unusual for me as I went to Dominica in February and then participated in two big firsts for REEF; the first REEF trip to Cuba and the first REEF trip to Micronesia.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Participating in REEF and completing REEF surveys increases my enjoyment of SCUBA exponentially, and gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose. There are so many detrimental things happening to our oceans today. Adding to the REEF database by submitting surveys makes me feel like I’m doing some small part to help the underwater world I love. In the process I’ve learned so many fascinating things about fish and other sea creatures. It’s fun too to do something that’s a little bit off mainstream. The folks in my office think it’s fun to tell people that “Debbie is out counting fish” when I’m away on a REEF Trip. I feel privileged to be a REEF member and to have the opportunity to dive with so many amazing people who truly care about our seas. I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who experience it first hand to be the ambassadors for the oceans. Sharing what we know with those who never get the chance to experience that magical underwater world is an important way to engage people in the fight to protect our oceans.

Putting it to Work: New Publication from the Grouper Moon Project

Diver-based fish length surveys conducted by REEF volunteers and Grouper Moon scientists were used in the study published earlier this year. Photo by Phil Bush.

We are proud to share the latest publication to result from REEF's programs - the paper, titled "Hydroacoustics for the discovery and quantification of Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) spawning aggregations" was published in the scientific journal Coral Reefs earlier this year. The Grouper Moon Project is always looking for new and/or better ways of accurately estimating the number of spawning Nassau Grouper at the aggregation sites being monitored. In 2014, we tested the use of a split-beam echosounder as a tool for surveying the abundance and size of fish at the aggregation site; the results of the study are detailed in this peer-reviewed paper. We found that the echosounder performs fairly well at providing an index of abundance, although the absolute accuracy of the method was not sufficient to replace other survey methods (e.g. mark and recapture monitoring). After calibrating the method with diver-based fish length surveys, the tool was able to accurately capture estimates of aggregating fish sizes. Surveys on all 3 islands (Little Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Grand Cayman) showed that the average size of Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman was significantly larger than on both Brac and Grand. Furthermore, the sizes of Nassau Grouper on Brac and Grand were not significantly different. Based on this study, the echosounder is a potentially useful tool for surveying aggregations, but is likely best used to complement more intensive diver-based survey methods.

Grouper Moon researchers, Dr. Brice Semmens and Dr. Scott Heppell, along with our colleague from Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Croy McCoy, were co-authors on the paper. You can find a link to this paper, along with information on all publications that have resulted from REEF's programs can be found at

REEF Participates in Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas Monitoring Data Workshop

CINMS Superintendant, Chris Mobley, gets ready to conduct a REEF survey during a recent monitoring cruise at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Carl Gwinn.
Channel Islands MPA Monitoring Data Workshop Participants

Earlier this month, REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, participated in the first of a series of workshops to be held this Fall to analyze REEF and other data gathered from the Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Originally established in 2003 (and then expanded to include Federal waters earlier this year), this network of no-take marine reserves protects 318 square miles around the northern five Channel Islands off the coast of California. In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission will conduct a 5-year review of the MPAs to evaluate the effectiveness of the reserve network. The results from the evaluation will inform future decisions made by the Commission under California's Marine Life Protection Act. The data group workshops, held at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, will culminate in a series of publications summarizing the cumulative efforts of dozens of monitoring programs within the Channel Islands MPAs, with an emphasis on analyses that can best address key management questions concerning the reserves. These results will be presented during a special symposium associated with the California Islands Symposium.

Coincident with the establishment of the marine reserves in 2003, REEF initiated a coordinated monitoring program at specific sites inside and outside of the reserves to complement the ongoing survey activities in the area by REEF members. Surveyors on REEF's Pacific Advanced Assessment Team participate in annual REEF cruises aboard the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) vessel R/V Shearwater, and this project has generated over 800 surveys to date. These data, along with an additional 750 REEF surveys that had been conducted around the islands prior to 2003, will provide information on the fish assemblages (and more recently key invertebrate and algae species) of the Channel Islands.

To find out more about our work in the CINMS, visit the REEF in Sanctuaries page.

REEF Store News

REEF will be making changes to the REEF Store over the next few months in an effort to streamline order processing and provide REEF members with the highest quality merchandise. We will keep you posted as these changes occur. A few highlights:

1. The apparel section of the store is temporarily unavailable. Please look for unique REEF apparel in January.

2. Starting January 1, 2008, REEF data scanforms will cost $0.50 each plus shipping in survey regions where online data entry is available (Tropical Western Atlantic, Pacific, Hawaii). Online data entry allows volunteers to more efficiently submit and view their data and allows REEF to focus its resources on improving the Volunteer Survey Project. Paper scanforms will still be available at no cost to volunteers without internet access and participants in REEF-led activities including AAT projects and Field Surveys.

3. We will be moving towards shipping all orders via USPS flat rate, Priority Mail unless faster shipping is required (extra charge).


Please keep an eye on the REEF Store for more information. 

REEF Members Visit HQ

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Here the Carters are seen with their preferred products from the REEF store. Sharol is holding her new favorite thing, the REEF home study course. Mark is holding an old favorite, the DVD Sensational Seas- he told us he thinks everyone should own a copy.
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The little yellow conch house which is REEF HQ was built in 1913.

REEF members, Mike and Sharol Carter of California, stopped by headquarters this month during their visit to The Keys. They enjoyed a few great dives and were looking forward to a kayak tour before heading back home.

It's not uncommon for REEF members to travel far and wide for fish-watching and surveying. Sharol ordered the Reef Fish Identification Beginning Course - Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas DVD home study course prior to their travels. She said she was thrilled to recognize local Keys fish and happy for memory tips on the DVD, like the button on the mutton fish which made her fish-watching much more fun.

Thanks to Mike and Sharol for brightening our day with their smiles. We hope to see them again soon, if not here then perhaps on a field survey in the future.

REEF headquarters is located in Key Largo, FL at mile marker 98.3. We are the little yellow conch house in the median. According to local historian Jerry Wilkinson, the building we are in was built in 1913. We're told, it is the oldest standing building in the Upper Keys still in the same location.

If you happen to be visiting The Florida Keys, please don't hesitate to stop in and say hello.

Don't Miss NBC Nightly News Story About REEF Lionfish Research

Lad Akins and Andy Dehart capture a lionfish during a recent REEF Lionfish Research Project.

A segment featuring REEF's research on the invasion of the Indo-Pacific Lionfish into the western Atlantic and Caribbean was featured on NBC Nightly News June 30th. Click here to view the segment online. NBC worked closely with REEF, NOAA, USGS, the National Aquarium in Washington DC and our other partners to produce the story. The close partnerships that REEF has formed to address the situation are yielding great results, but we are more concerned than ever about the spread of this invasion and the impacts it may have.

For The Love of the Sea Benefit - Save The Date

A pair of courting peppermint basslet. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Join us on Saturday, February 7, for the second annual For the Love of the Sea Benefit and Auction in Key Largo, Florida, at Amoray Dive Resort. This ocean-themed event will include sunset cocktails, dinner, dancing under the stars to a steel drum band, an auction and presentations by REEF founders and famed underwater photographers, Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach. The evening festivities aim to raise awareness about REEF, our amazing volunteers and the critical marine conservation work that our programs support. A silent and live auction will offer prizes from local businesses and exotic dive travel. Tickets are $85 each. There is a limited number of tickets for purchase this year so don't delay. Click here to purchase tickets online. To buy tickets over the phone, as well as to find out about becoming an event sponsor or to donate an item to the auction, contact Janet Bartnicki at 305-852-0030 or We hope to see you there!

Students Learn About Science From REEF Programs

Students from the U-32 High School spend a week in Bermuda conducting REEF surveys.
A U-32 student conducting a REEF survey in Bermuda.
Clark Magnet High School students conferring about fish sightings in the Channel Islands.
A map of kelp bass density around Anacapa Island, generated by Clark Magnet High School using REEF data.

The Volunteer Survey Project is at the center of REEF's citizen science programs. It provides thousands of divers and snorkelers the opportunity to contribute information on the status and biodiversity of ocean populations. The Survey Project also serves as a training opportunity in many formal and informal education programs. In this issue of REEF-in-Brief, we feature high school students on both sides of the US who are learning first hand how to conduct fish surveys and analyze their results.

The U-32 High School in Montpelier, Vermont, offers a Marine and Fresh Water Biology Class to Seniors each year. Their instructor, Brian Slopey, is also a REEF surveyor. The course focuses on the comparison between rivers, lakes and the ocean. Students examine the living components of these ecosystems as well as the influence of physical and chemical conditions. The students conduct extensive marine research during a trip to the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences, including conducting snorkel REEF fish surveys. During each field project, approximately 100 surveys are conducted. In preparation for the trip, students use the Reef Fish Identification Beginning ID Course DVD to learn groups of fish. They then generate Geographic Summary reports for Bermuda from the REEF database and use the Fish ID Interactive DVD software to more closely research species of fish they will likely observe. Once in Bermuda, the students keep an extensive journal that includes fish and invertebrate behavior observations, plankton tow observations, lecture notes and notes on readings.

On the other side of the country, in La Crescenta, California, students at Clark Magnet High School, have been working to collect and analyze marine life survey data from the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS). With this project, which is currently funded by a Toyota Tapestry Grant, students use geographic information science (GIS) to document effects of marine protected areas on species abundance. Using species lists from the REEF database, students create field reference notebooks on the fish, invertebrates and algal species inhabiting the CINMS. In preparation for field surveys, students practice with the REEF online fish identification quiz. The students then work with dive teams from NOAA, Ventura County Sheriff’s divers and Sport Chalet to conduct REEF surveys for the class and to document the study areas and project procedures with underwater photography. Following the field work, students analyze the data and display the results of their projects as maps and graphs in scientifically formatted poster presentations. Each student poster incorporated an extended abstract that the students submit for publication in The New Journal of Student Research Abstracts.

Are you using REEF programs in a formal or informal education program? Email us at and let us know about it!

Trips For Your Lifelist

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The strange-looking shortnose batfish is one of the critters you might find in Dominica. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
Topside discoveries like this flamingo colony in Bonaire (and amazing waterfalls in Dominica) can be found on both these trips. Photo by Kai Kane.

Want to add a few new species to your life list? Look no further than Dominica and Bonaire. These islands both offer some unique treasures and are sure to please every level of diver as well as beauty above water for your non-diving companions. REEF is leading Field Surveys to both of these beautiful islands this year, and we invite you to join us! The Dominica field survey trip is April 17 - 24, and Bonaire takes place September 25 – October 2.

The natural beauty of Dominica includes some of the most enchanting topography both above and below the waterline, with several waterfalls and hiking trails to be explored on one of the least developed islands in the Caribbean. The diving is also spectacular, and on our last trip here seven years ago flying gurnards, short-nose batfish, fringed filefish, blackfin snapper, harlequin pipefish and reef scorpionfish were all documented by our keen-eyed surveyors. REEF Board member Heather George is leading the trip this year, and she will help you look for these species and many more.

Few dive sites in the world can provide 100 fish species on a single dive - Bonaire is one of these special places. During our survey week here, you are likely to add at least 5 or more new species to your life list, no matter what your current REEF level. Trip Leader, Jessie Armacost, lived in Bonaire and taught Fish ID there for 7 years. She will help you find clingfish, pikeblennies, maculated flounders, medusa blennies, semi-scaled gobies and many other fish that are rarely found elsewhere. During group sessions you will learn where to look for viper morays, ringed blennies as well as popular fish like spotted drums and seahorses. The diving is easy with great accessible shore dives as well as easy close-by boat dives, and the trip will be particularly exciting this year during the annual coral spawn, when the reef is charged with sexual energy day and night.

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.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub