Since 2001, REEF has led the Grouper Moon Project, a multi-faceted, collaborative research effort in the Cayman Islands aimed at better understanding Nassau grouper reproduction and the role that marine reserves can play in the long-term protection of this endangered species. The 2009 spawning season was the most ambitious to date for the project. For the first time, we had teams of researchers and volunteers stationed on each of the three Cayman Islands--Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. The field season was certainly a success; among many interesting results and accomplishments, our most exciting find was that the teams on all three islands witnessed Nassau grouper spawning on the same night (Valentine’s Day, of all days! – which happened to be 5 nights after the full moon).
In 2003 the Cayman Island Marine Conservation Board instituted an 8-year fishing ban on Nassau grouper at all historically known aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands. This followed the discovery by fisherman of 7,000 aggregating Nassau grouper on the west end of Little Cayman in 2001 and the subsequent harvest of 4,000 of those fish over two spawning seasons. At the time, all other known Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands had become inactive due to over-harvest. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded in 2008 by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF is conducting research through the Grouper Moon Project to evaluate the current status of the Cayman Islands spawning aggregations and the effect of these harvest protections -- “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”.
The broad goals for the 2009 spawning season were to continue monitoring recovery in the large spawning aggregation on Little Cayman, and to expand research into the fate of remnant spawning aggregations on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman; aggregations on both of these islands were fished to exhaustion in the recent past. In addition to the island specific objectives, the Grouper Moon research program expanded satellite drifter work this season. These drifters, which track current patterns associated with the body of water the grouper eggs were spawned in, will continue to report positions for 45 days after spawning; this length of time is the approximate larval duration for Nassau grouper. REEF also continued education and outreach efforts through public talks about spawning aggregations and the Grouper Moon research. Talks were held at the Little Cayman National Trust and Dive Tech/Cobalt Coast Resort.
2009 Aggregation Season Results Summary
The Little Cayman team continued the long-term monitoring of this aggregation, which includes counting the number of fish that show up, estimating the size of the fish, and recording the timing and amount of spawning observed. The Cayman Brac team’s goal was to document whether or not aggregating Nassau grouper were spawning-- evidence of spawning would refute the theory that Nassau grouper fail to recover once overfished because fish on small aggregations no longer release gametes. In the 2008 spawning season, the Grouper Moon research team discovered the location of an aggregation of Nassau grouper on Cayman Brac. This year, armed with this information, REEF and CIDOE researchers spent the full 2009 spawning season observing, videoing and documenting the Cayman Brac spawning aggregation. In addition, the team was able to accomplish the primary goal of this season’s work on the island—team members both observed and videoed spawning. Objectives for the Grand Cayman team were similar, except that they first had the task of discovering where Nassau grouper on that island go (if anywhere) during the spawning season. Using the acoutic tag pinger signal of just ONE Nassau grouper (of 6 total individuals tagged on Grand Cayman in 2008), divers confirmed the presence of aggregating grouper near the historic East End aggregation site and a dusk dive on February 14th yielded this season’s biggest accomplishment– team members witnessed Nassau grouper spawning on Grand Cayman!
The findings stemming from this work are unquestionably novel, and are certainly good news —protections on aggregation sites that have been fished to exhaustion will protect those few individuals that remain, and will protect stocks of fishes that are contributing to the next generation of this endangered reef fish. Put simply, our research demonstrates that overfished aggregations are down, but not out.
Why Does This Matter?
Nassau grouper are not just icons of the Caribbean; they are a social and ecological cornerstone of the region’s coral reefs. Historically, Nassau grouper represented one of the region’s most economically important fisheries. Unfortunately, due to intense harvest on spawning aggregations, their populations have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The species became the first Caribbean reef fish to be listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the species is candidate listed under the US Endangered Species Act. The precipitous decline in mass spawning aggregations of Caribbean grouper species has been well documented. The majority of known Caribbean aggregation sites are now inactive due to the ease with which aggregating species are caught. And those that are still active contain significantly fewer fish than the 10s of thousands that historically gathered at these special places.
As part of our work on the Grouper Moon Project, REEF will continue to develop a comprehensive assessment of the status of the Cayman Island’s Nassau grouper spawning population as a guide for future Nassau grouper restoration and conservation policy.
Collaborators and Supporters Who Make This Project Possible
REEF would like to thank our collaborators at the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, specifically Phil Bush, Bradley Johnson, Croy McCoy, James Gibb, Tim Austin, Gina Ebanks-Pietre, Chris Dixon, Keith Neale, Delwin McLaughlin and Robert Walton, as well as Drs. Scott and Selina Heppell from Oregon State University. REEF Volunteers have always been at the core of our Grouper Moon field work and 2009 was no exception – heartfelt thanks to Judie Clee, Thor Dunmire, Tracey Griffin, Doug Harder, Brenda Hitt, Denise Mizell and Sheryl Shea. The Grouper Moon Project has continued through the years empowered by the first year’s success and the passion of early project leader Leslie Whaylen Clift. Assistance from OSU graduate students, Stephanie Kraft and Heather Reiff, is much appreciated. Principal financial support is from the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the CIDOE. Additional funding is from Mr. Wayne Panton, Mr. Dan Scott, Clive and Stella Wood, Franklin and Cassandra Neal, and hundreds of REEF members. Continued in-kind logistical support from island businesses and residents, including the Little Cayman Beach Resort/Reef Divers, the Southern Cross Club and Peter Hillenbrand, is also much appreciated. And finally, our ground-breaking achievements on Cayman Brac would not have been possible without the generous support of Wayne Sullivan, who donated his vessel the Glen Ellen, his time (and patience), his equipment and technical diving expertise, and his crew, Brady Booton and Jules James.
For more information on the project, visit the Grouper Moon Project Webpage. If you would like to support this critical marine conservation research, please donate today through the REEF Website or call REEF HQ at 305-852-0030.
Planning is underway for REEF's annual research on Nassau grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands for the 2010 spawning season - the Grouper Moon Project. This collaborative conservation program between REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment is entering its 8th year. Thanks to funding from the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the research team is conducting innovative research that is critical to the long-term survival of this iconic Caribbean species. Grouper Moon scientists will be in the field January 30 - February 12, 2010. If you are looking for a winter getaway and are considering the Cayman Islands, this is a great time to visit Little Cayman.
While there are not opportunities for recreational divers to visit the aggregation, researchers will be giving several public talks and divers on Bloody Bay Wall will witness the mass migrations of the normally solitary Nassau grouper from their home reefs out to the aggregation site. Another good reason -- the acclaimed Southern Cross Club has offered to donate a percentage of any package booked by REEF members during that time to support REEF's Grouper Moon Project. To take a vacation and make a positive impact for the grouper, contact the Southern Cross Club reservation office directly at 1-800-899-2582 or info@SouthernCrossClub.com -- be sure to mention that you are a REEF member!
More information about the 2010 research and program objectives for the Grouper Moon Project will be included in future issues of REEF-in-Brief. you can also find out more about the Project on the Grouper Moon Project Webpage.
Congratulations to our newest Field Stations who have joined us since the start of 2010! These shops, charters, instructors and organizations can support REEF in many ways - offering classes, REEF survey opportunities, stocking survey supplies, etc. For more information and to check out who the other 173 REEF Field Stations are, go to the Field Station page on the REEF website.
REEF Field Surveys offer a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and are a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow fishwatchers. The recent trip to Key Largo was no exception. REEF surveyors gathered in late August at Amoray Dive Resort for the Key Largo Field Survey and Coral Conservation trip. The trip was scheduled around the annual coral spawning that usually occurs in the Keys after the full moon of August. Amy Slate, owner of Amoray, organized a great week of activities, including presentations by Lauri MacLaughlin, from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation. A 3-minute highlite video is posted on YouTube here.
Ned DeLoach kicked off the week with presentations about fish behavior and an overview of Key Largo’s more famous fish species. Key Largo is known for its grunts so we started the week with back-to-back dives on the Benwood, where fish watchers can regularly observe eight species of grunts on a dive. The second dive was timed with the daily arrival of the parrotfish that bed down for the night in the nooks and crannies of the wreck. Hundreds of Blue, Midnight and Rainbow parrotfish arrive around sunset and spend about 15 minutes swooping around before they settle in to sleep. For veteran fish counters, this is a bonanza because it is extremely rare to be able to mark Abundant (over 100) for Midnight parrotfish!
Lauri MacLaughlin has amassed an extensive collection of spawning coral video and uses it to educate the public about the plight of coral reefs but also showcases Sanctuary programs that give hope for their future. After her presentation, our group joined Lauri and her team on the projected night for spawning staghorn and elkhorn coral. They placed tents over selected corals to capture gametes for research while we spent several hours watching for signs of gamete bundle formation in the polyps. Unfortunately none of the research groups stationed all over the Keys observed any spawning that evening.
To continue with our coral conservation theme, Ken Nedimyer joined us to tell us his inspiring story about how he made the transition from live rock farmer for the aquarium industry to coral farmer. Ken and his family turned a few small coral recruits that settled on his live rock into over 5,000 growing coral colonies. His organization has now successfully transplanted corals on a number of reefs in the Florida Keys Sanctuary. After Ken’s talk we load up the boat for a visit to his coral nursery and some hands-on work. There is no better way to understand the scope of what he has accomplished than to see it for ourselves and contribute to the cause by helping with some of busy work scrubbing algae and cementing coral fragments to concrete bases. Fish surveys in the coral nursery are usually productive and this time included a tiny jackknife fish and an Emerald parrotfish.
The week included a visit to REEF headquarters where staff and volunteers, Jane Bixby, Karla Hightshoe and Nancy Perez treated us to refreshments and a tour. Field Operations Coordinator Alecia Adamson gave her very informative presentation about REEF’s programs dealing with the invasive lionfish in the Tropical Western Atlantic.
Other highlights of the week included a dive with a very inquisitive Goliath grouper and a rare chance to survey the grass beds and mangroves on the Florida Bay side of Key Largo, where we added Sea Bream, Inshore lizardfish, and Banner and Frillfin gobies to our list. We ended the week with two dives at Snapper Ledge; a site that has received a lot of attention in the past few years by groups who are petitioning to have the area designated a Sanctuary Preservation Area to protect the thousands of fish that gather there. It was a fishwatcher’s dream, a fitting way to end the week.
If all of this sounds fun, we hope you will join us on a future Field Survey. The 2011 trip schedule is now posted online here -- http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule
There are a few Field Survey trips in 2011 with spaces available. Please consider joining us in one of these great destinations – Maui, Roatan, and the Bahamas. These trips offer a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and are a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow fishwatchers. REEF staff lead these trips, and each features daily classroom seminars and a full diving schedule.
Maui, Hawaii – April 16-22 - The package includes 4 days of diving on the dramatic reefs off Lanai and west Maui with Extended Horizons, who operates one of the friendliest and most experienced scuba charter boat in Lahaina. They offer up to 33% more bottom time than other Lanai dive boats and their interpretive naturalist staff make this operation a perfect fit for a REEF group. We will also do several shore dives around the island. And with all of the beautiful beaches and land-based activities, this is a great destination for non-diving friends and family. Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, REEF Director of Science.
Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas – June 12-18 – The package includes 7 nights at Green Turtle Club and 6 days of 2 tank boat dives at Brandal’s Dive Shop. In addition to conducting fish surveys, this trip will help document the establishment and consequences of invasive lionfish in REEF’s ongoing effort to minimize the Indo-Pacific predator’s impact on native fish populations, including dissections of specimens to document prey. Led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects.
Roatan, Honduras – July 30-August 6 – The package includes 7 nights accommodations at Anthony’s Key Resort, all meals, 3 single tank boat dives per day (6 days), 2 single tank boat night dives, a day excursion to Maya Key, and airport transfers. REEF is conducting this project at the invitation of the Roatan Marine Park to survey in the protected areas of the park to evaluate how the reserves are working. Led by Alecia Adamson, REEF Field Operations Coordinator.
View the entire REEF Trip schedule here -- http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. To inquire about a trip and to reserve your spot, contact the REEF Travel Consultant at Caradonna, 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or via e-mail REEF@caradonna.com.
When you call the REEF office, you may be greeted with a new voice. Please join us in welcoming Martha Klitzkie as the new General Manager. After completing a Bachelor of Arts from Warren Wilson College, a passion for marine education led her to serve as the Education Director at the Pigeon Key Foundation in Marathon, Florida. She later went on to direct a larger marine education program based at Camp Ocean Pines, located on the central coast of California. During this time she also completed a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Administration from Argosy University. But a love for the Florida Keys and its coral reefs brought her back home to the sunshine state to join the REEF team. As the General Manager, Martha supervises a variety of activities necessary to the day-to-day operations at REEF. Welcome, Martha!
There is growing concern that lionfish will affect the structure and function of invaded marine ecosystems. REEF Director of Special Projects, Lad Akins, is a co-author on a recently published paper evaluating these effects. The study was published in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE. Lead author, Stephanie Green, from Simon Fraser University (SFU), along with Akins and other co-authors Aleks Maljković (SFU), and Isabelle Côté (SFU), documented a dramatic 65% decline in 42 species of reef fish eaten by lionfish over a two year period. The study, conducted off New Providence Island in the Bahamas, used data collected during REEF's volunteer lionfish projects to track the explosion of the lionfish population over time, and reveals that lionfish biomass increased from 23% to nearly 40% of the predator biomass on the study sites between 2008 and 2010. This study represents the first documented direct impact of lionfish predation on native reef fishes and highlights the importance of control programs to minimize impacts. You can find a link to this and all published papers that have included REEF data on our Publications page.
New research using powerful genetic techniques and the REEF survey data have revealed two new species of hamlet in the Caribbean. The findings were recently published by scientist Ben Victor in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation. As our Caribbean surveyors know, hamlets are a group of colorful small sea basses that can sometimes cause ID confusion because of their myriad of colors and patterns. The varied color patterns in these small predators are thought to be a result of mimicry of other colorful but more innocuous herbivore species. There has been ongoing debate about which are actual species and which are simply just color variants or morphotypes. Ben's research revealed significant genetic differences among what seemed to simply be variations of the well-known Barred Hamlet. Ben stated that "the REEF database supplied valuable survey data indispensable to understanding ranges and abundances and unmatched in its comprehensive coverage".
The two new species are the Florida Barred Hamlet, Hypoplectrus floridae, and the Contoy Hamlet, H. ecosur. The typical Barred Hamlet (H. puella) that is found throughout the Caribbean will be updated in the REEF database to be called the Caribbean Barred Hamlet. Florida Barred Hamlet have been found in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and South Florida, and overlaps in range with the Caribbean Barred Hamlet in those areas. To date, the Contoy Hamlet has only been documented on Isla Contoy near the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula and maybe Isla Mujeres. Florida Barred Hamlet are distinguished by a pair of symmetrical dark spots at the base of the caudal fin along with a break in the mid-body narrow bar. The Contoy Hamlet is distinguished by the same paid of dark spots at the base of the tail as well as a series of additional dark spots along the upper caudal peduncle and below the dorsal fin. A PDF of Ben's paper can be found online here, and it includes many pictures of the new species. Video of the Contoy Hamlet has been posted on Youtube.
REEF surveyors in the regions of the new species are encouraged to learn the differences and being reporting them as distinct species using the Unlisted Species section of the online data form. To see a list of a all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects, visit our Publications Page.
In the summer of 1993, a group of pioneering volunteers conducted the first REEF fish surveys. Twenty years later, the Volunteer Survey Project and other REEF initiatives are leading the way as innovative and effective marine conservation programs. You are invited to join us this summer to celebrate 20 years of success. REEF Fest will take place August 8-11 in Key Largo, Florida, and will feature four days of diving, learning, and parties. Complete details, including the schedule, lodging options, diving and kayaking opportunities, and social gatherings can be found online at: www.REEF.org/REEFFest2013
All REEF Fest events are open to the public, but pre-registration is requested for social events and workshops. Register using this online form. Tickets are required for the Saturday Dinner Cruise celebration. Purchase dinner cruise tickets online here. A quick look at the schedule can be seen here. Questions? Please send us an email at REEFHQ@REEF.org or call us at 305-852-0030. We look forward to seeing you all in August!
REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.
This month we highlight Joe Gaydos, Ph.D., an avid REEF volunteer in Washington State and Director of the SeaDoc Society (a REEF Field Station). Joe has been a REEF member since 2003 and has conducted 120 surveys. He is a member of the PAC Advanced Assessment Team, and Joe was instrumental in initiating the AAT San Juan Islands Annual REEF Monitoring Project that kicked off this summer (see story in this enews issue). Here's what Joe had to say about REEF:
How are you involved as a REEF member?
I conducted my first REEF survey in Washington State in 2003, and have been doing them ever since. In addition, the program I run, the SeaDoc Society, is a REEF Field Station. We’ve hosted numerous fish and invertebrate identification classes and multiple Great Annual Fish Count dives, but I’m most excited about our new monitoring program collaboration. We’ve partnered with REEF to have Advanced Assessment Team Divers come to the San Juan Islands for annual week-long survey trips. We expect that over the next 8-10 years these data will help us understand long-term sub-tidal changes in the ecosystem.
What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned doing a REEF fish survey?
I live and dive in the Salish Sea, a 17,000 square kilometer inland sea shared by Washington and British Columbia. The data collected by REEF volunteers are valuable to the managers in the region who are working to recovery declining species like Northern Abalone and Rockfish. I love being able to collect data that is meaningful.
In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?
As a scientist, I love that the REEF data are collected in a way that is scientifically rigorous. Volunteers are trained and their level reflects their training and experience. Also, it is great that the data are collected and stored in a way that they will always be available for evaluation – even decades from now. This is citizen-science at its finest.
Where is your favorite place to dive?
My favorite place to dive is about 2 miles from my house. It’s a high current area split by an island so you get the benefits of seeing all of the invertebrates that flourish in the current, but you can always dive on one side of the island or the other. The site is familiar, but strikingly beautiful and I always find something new. The water is cold here and people generally expect everything to be dull and they are amazed to see videos or stills of colorful invertebrates and fishes.
Is there a fish (or marine invertebrate) you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?
Here, most everybody wants to see a Giant Pacific Octopus – 150 lbs, 2,240 suckers (unless it’s a male, then they only have 2,060) – what’s not to love. But me, I still want to see a Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker. They’re only the size of a golf ball, but dang are they cute. When is Disney going to make a movie starring one of them?! Maybe this year.