Lionfish Letters from the Field - Early Detection, Rapid Response and Outreach

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Lad Akins holds a captured lionfish. Volunteers can help with removal efforts such as this one during REEF's Lionfish Research Projects. Photo by Sally Burrows.
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Indo-Pacific Lionfish are now omni-present throughout the Bahamas. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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REEF recently held a training workshop for dive staff and government officials in the Turks and Caicos sponsored by Dive Provo.

REEF continues our efforts as a leader in confronting the invasion of Indo-Pacific Lionfish into the eastern US, Caribbean and Bahamas. In November, we participated in a workshop to help craft a national response to the invasion in the Bahamas, conducted training in the Turks and Caicos where lionfish are just starting to show up and shared findings from our field work at an international conference (see GCFI article). Our work, both in the field conducting research with our academic and government partners as well as conducting education and outreach with the public, is making a big difference in this critical environmental problem. To get involved and help with control efforts in the Turks and Caicos, join on REEF's upcoming lionfish project with Dive Provo, January 17-24.

On November 6th and 7th, the Bahamas government hosted their National Lionfish Response Planning Workshop in Nassau, Bahamas with over 40 representatives from government agencies and NGOs. REEF’s Lad Akins was invited as a key presenter during the first day of lectures and lead instructor during the second day of collecting and dissections. Organized by Marine Resources’ Lakeshia Anderson, the workshop was designed to bring officials up to speed on the current state of knowledge and ongoing lionfish research, what potential solutions were available for addressing the invasion, proposed legal changes relating to lionfish collection, collecting and handling techniques, first aid, dissections and even a cooking demonstration. During the field operations with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, participants were exposed to collecting and handling techniques and were able to collect over 60 lionfish on 2 short dives. Later that day, dissecting demonstrations were held then the remaining fish were battered and fried (to rave reviews) by local lionfish cooking expert Gregory Maillis. Attendees of the workshop were praised by director of Marine Resources, Michael Braynen, and were then charged with continuing education, outreach, and collecting efforts in their local communities and out-islands.

At the end of the month, Lad traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to conduct training and education workshops for staff at Dive Provo and for the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR). The effort, funded by Dive Provo, included three days of training for Dive Provo staff and instructors including morning seminars and afternoon field work. In addition, local residents joined in on the third day to learn about the issue and help locate lionfish during afternoon dives. On day four, Lad met with DECR Scientific Officer Marlon Hibbert and Director of DECR Wesley Clerveaux. A two-hour seminar was presented to DECR fisheries officers followed by discussions about REEF’s return visit in January. The January effort will represent the first focused lionfish project in the Turks and Caicos and will also gather fish diversity information that will be compared to historical REEF data to assess changes to the local reef systems over the past 10 years. While lionfish are not as abundant in the Turks and Caicos as they are now in the Bahamas, the situation does provide the perfect opportunity to implement country-wide education and control efforts. REEF’s upcoming project with Dive Provo on January 17-24 will be critically important in getting a good start on these control efforts. To join in REEF’s Turks and Caicos Project, call REEF Reservations at 877-295-7333 or email REEF@caradonna.com.

To find out more about REEF's Lionfish Research Program, visit our lionfish webpage.

Discover Bermuda With Ned and Anna DeLoach

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Grotto Bay Resort will be home base for the week in Bermuda.
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Church Bay is one of the many beautiful snorkeling sites in Bermuda.
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The Blue Angelfish is one of the species divers and snorkelers will see in Bermuda. Photo by John Burville.

Make a dive trip that counts - in Bermuda, October 3- 10, on the Fish Behavior Tour! World-renowned marine naturalists, Ned and Anna DeLoach, authors of Reef Fish Identification and Reef Fish Behavior, will join local expert REEF instructor, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook, Collector of Specimens for the Bermuda Aquarium, as your trip leaders. Ned and Anna will schedule slide and video fish presentations about the wonderful world of marine life behavior and fish identification. This is an excellent destination for your non-diving friends and family as well.

This is going to be an awesome week for everyone. Bermuda is a wonderful destination and the Grotto Bay Hotel offers fine accommodation and dining. Their on site dive operation – Triangle Diving – is exceptional and their dive staff's knowledge and experience means they will be able to chose the very best dive sites each day. Ned and Anna's engaging and informative lectures will cover everything from fish identification to interesting behaviors, including reproduction and predation. In addition to many of the usual suspects, you will be able to see endemics like our Bermuda Bream and some species like the Blue Angelfish that are rarely seen elsewhere but common in Bermuda.

Bermuda is a also a wonderful place to come with your non-diving spouse/partner/friend/children. Anyone who just wants to snorkel will be able to do so comfortably at most of the dive sites or just along the shoreline and still see lots of fish and corals. On land there is so much to see and do, and local REEF volunteers will be on hand to give personal island sightseeing tours to anyone interested. Shopping is great with lots of local and British products. Don’t forget the pristine, beautiful beaches with the fine pink sand – there for anyone who just wants to chill out.

Our island hosts have arranged an exciting agenda for the week to make this not just a typical dive vacation. These opportunities include a presentation by the Bermuda BREAM Project scientists, a visit to Nonsuch Island (a magical place to explore and a birdwatcher's delight), viewing the glowworms at Whalebone Bay, watching the invasive lionfish culling team and the lionfish culinary team in action – as in “catch and eat” – yummy!, all topped off with a cocktail reception and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.

Don't miss your chance to take a trip of a lifetime. The cost per person is $2,095, plus a $300 REEF Program Fee. The package Includes: 7 nights in Oceanfront Superior room, taxes and resort gratuities, round-trip airport transfers, 5 days of 2-tank boat dives with Triangle Divers, behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium, classroom sessions and survey materials.

This is just one of several REEF Trips that remain in 2009. A few spaces remain on the Field Surveys to Curacao in October and Cozumel in December -- check out the full trip schedule online. And stay tuned for our 2010 Field Survey schedule, which will be announced soon! For more information and to reserve your space please contact our dedicated REEF Travel Consultant at 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or you can e-mail REEF@caradonna.com.

Fishy Love

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Spawning butter hamlets. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

The first time we ever saw Hamlets spawn, Ned and I were on a liveaboard REEF trip in Belize. We were just starting serious work on the behavior book at the time and still unaware of just how rewarding dusk dives can be for fish watchers. Trying to squeeze in a fourth dive before dark, our group dropped in just before sunset, agreeing to be back up in time for dinner.

These were the days when I could still add new fish to my life list on almost every dive trip and the charismatic Hamlets with their 11 distinct color morphs and various “hybrid” variations were especially prized sightings (we’ll save the species debate for another day). Hamlets are solitary hunters during the day. So when we saw two chasing each other about, we instinctively knew something out of the ordinary was happening. But, was it love or war?

The traditional color of one of the pair was noticeably blanched. We’d seen that happen with fighting Sailfin blennies - the fish that was out of its hole turns very pale. But the behavior of the Hamlets was more reminiscent of flirtation rather than conflict. The fish being pursued would race ahead then stop, usually with its nose pointed up, twitch, and immediately take off once again as soon as the pursuer caught up. For over twenty minutes they dashed about in all directions before always returning to the same coral head.

Finally, just as the last light was fading, the hamlets paused above the coral head only inches apart, entwined their 3-inch bodies and slowly rose together a foot or two. I know we aren’t supposed to anthropomorphize, but it certainly looked like love to us. Suddenly, they popped apart releasing a white puff of gametes and immediately darted back toward the reef. Instead of going their separate ways, the chasing, nuzzling and twitching began anew and shortly they spawned again, then again and again before they finally disappeared, going their separate ways into the night.

Later we learned to our amazement that Hamlets are simultaneous hermaphrodites, with each partner possessing both male and female reproductive organs. This unusual scenario, known as egg trading, allows each couple to play both the male and female role each evening. The fish assuming the role of the female plays the aggressor, twitching and chasing the blanched, interim male about. After each spawn the roles reverse until the lovers are finally spent.

The best news for fishwatchers is Hamlets appear to spawn each evening year-round. So, on your next dusk dive in the Tropical Western Atlantic make a point of watching for Hamlets; if you do you’re sure to be entertained.

Note: a short video of Spawning Hamlets is available on REEF’s YouTube Channel, WeSpeakFish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEMCqVBB0CM

Roatan Field Survey a Success!

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Twenty-four lucky REEF members joined Paul Humann for a week of diving in Roatan, Honduras.
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A Dog Snapper displaying an interesting barred pattern. Photo by Paul Humann.
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A pattern of dense brown spots covered this Yellowmouth Grouper. Photo by Paul Humann.

REEF recently completed a Field Survey trip to Roatan, Honduras, led by REEF co-founder, Paul Humann. Over six days, the group completed 17 survey dives including one night dive. Both novice and highly experienced REEF surveyors enjoyed the near perfect weather and dive conditions. Shortfin pipehorses, wrasse blennies, linesnout gobies, peppermint basslets, orangesided gobies, dash gobies, and blue dartfish are a sample of the cryptic fishes that were observed. Spotted Eagle Rays and Southern Stingrays graced us with their presence on a number of dives.

The group stayed on the east end of the island at Turquoise Bay Resort and dove with Subway Scuba. The highpoint of the trip was the Aguila Wreck and surrounding reef where there were numerous species of large grouper and snapper. There was a dog snapper displaying body bars similar to those sometimes on Cubera Snappers and Schoolmasters. Also, there was a Yellowmouth Grouper with an unusual pattern of dense brown dots covering the body. Paul remarked that he had never seen either species with these unusual markings.

A not so welcome sighting was the invasive red lionfish; one or more were sighted on nearly every dive. Alecia Adamson, REEF’s new Field Operations and Outreach Coordinator, collected 15 lionfish over the course of the week ranging in size from 2 to 14 inches. The local divemasters were also collecting lionfish but were not aware that lionfish filets are delectable. Alecia gave them a demonstration on how to safely filet lionfish. Now the dive staff captures lionfish for both control and culinary purposes!

Congratulations to those who attained a higher surveyor experience level during the week - Bobbi Kerridge and Peter Rae are now Level 3 surveyors and Pat Lommel is a new Level 5 Expert surveyor!

Field Surveys are a great way to take a dive vacation that counts! If you would like to join in one of our future Field Surveys, there are a few spots available for the upcoming trips to Cozumel, Key Largo, Bonaire, and Grand Cayman. Please visit the Field Survey Trip Schedule online to find more information.

Putting It to Work: Who’s Using REEF Data, December 2010

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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 State University requested data from sites along the west coast of Florida to evaluate how fish species richness is influenced by the presence of certain grouper species.

- A scientist from the Smithsonian Institute is mapping the distribution and co-occurance of garden eel species in the western Atlantic.

- A researcher from NOAA Fisheries is looking at the species distribution of Gray Snapper.

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Itziar Aretxaga

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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 Itziar Aretxaga (REEF member since 2003). Itziar has conducted 263 REEF surveys in three REEF regions, and she is a member of the Advanced Assessment Team in the Tropical Western Atlantic. Here's what Itziar had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF?

Shortly after I got my C-card I started looking for a good reference book on fish. I was fortunate to find Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach´s reef guides, and there I read about the REEF program and how one could volunteer. I joined and started identifying species and reporting them to REEF on my own. A year later I met Lad Akins in a course he gave to volunteers in the Veracruz National Park, and he taught me a few tricks that improved my identification skills. He has been a great mentor in all my fish watching activities ever since.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

I often look at the online database to check what I might be missing, and the only way of improving it is for each of us to submit our surveys, even if that means clicking on the box for Yellowtail Snappers over and over again. I keep telling myself that I hope I will never see the day when I miss them because they are no longer there. I also take special pride when our data are used in scientific publications or management reports. It might be a mere dot in a plot, but collectively we contribute to the growth of knowledge on marine life and conservation.

Do you dive close to where you live? What is the best part about diving there?

I have done over 200 surveys in Veracruz and I know it well enough now that I can recognize changes. I enjoy noticing the unusual species, species off-season, and it is really thrilling when I get to report a new species. There is also the challenge of spotting fish that others have reported that I have yet to see, so the fun continues.

What is your most memorable fish find?

The first Smooth Trunkfish in golden variation I saw in Veracruz, and the first time it was reported outside the Northern Gulf of Mexico by REEF members. I was so excited when I saw it that I started dancing underwater, quite literally. The staff in our local diving shop told me afterwards they were not that unusual in the area. It was just that nobody had reported them before.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

I like sharing with others the fun of it. I usually take surveys during commercial diving boat trips, and people are curious about those slates that I take underwater and keep scribbling on. It is great to see some of them then turn to my book, and start calling each other to show what they themselves have seen.

Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Seattle Scuba

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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, Seattle Scuba, is based in the always-green but often-rainy Pacific NW. Yes, the water's cold there. Seattle Scuba is a full service facility that provides training, equipment rentals/sales, fun dives and more - all served up with an ample helping of personality and humor to their customers and friends. They are passionate not only about teaching diving, but about instilling awareness of the marine environment in divers. The REEF survey program is an ideal tool in this mission. Their training director/resident mermaid Heidi Wilken got involved in REEF surveying after encountering some fish geeks on a fun dive one day. Wanting to incorporate and support REEF's mission she decided to provide resources at Seattle Scuba. They have been a Field Station for about 4 years now. Now two of their training staff are REEF Advanced Assessment Team members (Heidi and David Todd). They hold periodic Fish Geek Dives, fish & invertebrate ID Classes, testing to move up in REEF Experience Levels, and offer a full range of Fish ID books for sale.

Heidi had this to say about Pacific NW diving: "Sometimes people look at Puget Sound and surrounding areas and think it will just be cold and dark - they have no idea of the colors and amazing critters that lurk beneath the surface! We are blessed to have not only lots of amazing and cool fish like the Red Irish Lord and the Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker, but also incredible invertebrate life, from the Giant Pacific Octopus to the tiny Opalescent Nudibranch." And what does Heidi like best about REEF? "You don't have to be a scientist to be involved, even if you can only identify ONE fish or invertebrate, you can contribute surveys - and you can do so to whatever level fits into your life, be it a survey a year or 200 a year." Her parting words: "Dive safe and survey often!" Thanks Heidi and the staff at Seattle Scuba - we're glad you're a REEF Field Station!

Grouper Moon Project To Be Featured In PBS Series

Changing Seas, an Emmy award-winning original production of Miami’s public television station WPBT2, will host a live online screening event of their newest episode, "Grouper Moon", which focuses on the collaborative efforts of REEF and the Cayman Department of the Environment to study and conserve one of the last great populations of the Nassau Grouper. A WPBT team joined REEF in the field during the Grouper Moon Project last winter, chronicling our efforts to help save this imperiled reef fish.

"Grouper Moon" will be screened live on the Changing Seas website on Wednesday, June 6th, at 2:30pm EST. During the screening, viewers will have the opportunity to join an online chat with producers and the experts featured in the program, including REEF's Director of Science Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D. and Grouper Moon Project Scientists Brice Semmens, Ph.D. from Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Scott Heppell, Ph.D. from Oregon State University.

Check out a preview of the "Grouper Moon" episode on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEAemdElBlg. If you miss it, the program’s premiere broadcast in south Florida will be at 7:30 pm EST June 20. The program will be posted online in its entirety by the end of June. To find out more about REEF's Grouper Moon Project, visit http://www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject.

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Carol Cox

Sawblade Arrow Shrimp. Carol was the first to capture this creature on film! Photo by Carol Cox.

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 Carol Cox. Carol joined REEF in 2010 and has conducted 159 surveys. Carol is a member of the Tropical Western Atlantic REEF Advanced Assessment Team and has been an active volunteer and instructor in REEF's Fishinar series. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

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

After retiring from the Air Force, and returning to our home in Mexico Beach, Florida (20 miles east of Panama City), I became active as a volunteer research diver for the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA). To receive State grants for our program, we are required to monitor the condition of artificial reefs we deploy. MBARA decided to incorporate fish surveys with the monitoring program, and I found REEF when researching ways to do fish surveys. REEF serves as our model, but we tailor our survey forms for the local area because our fish population is very different than the fishes found further south.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

When I saw how REEF data are used by naturalists and scientists, I wanted to add fish count data from where I live, especially because there were only a few surveys for my community. I really saw the need after the large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Our community was lucky, barely escaping the oil slick when a storm blew the approaching oil slick back in the direction it came from. Although we suffered few effects, I realized we needed to catalogue what we had, otherwise, how would we know how our biodiversity was adapting to environmental changes? Since I started volunteering with REEF, I have had opportunity to interact with scientists and fish enthusiasts from around the world. The education REEF provides is phenomenal. I began my self-education by doing the fish quizzes. Then I attended many of the online Fishinars and they are all very educational and FUN! I also learn a lot from other fish watchers using the online fish identification forum.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

The data that are being captured by REEF fish surveys will be invaluable to scientists of the future. As the environment changes, the REEF database will be looked at more and more. We need to record what we have now if we are to know what is affected by global warming, red tide, or the next big oil spill. Who knows, the REEF database may eventually provide the knowledge on how to control the lionfish invasion.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

Most of my diving is where I live, in Mexico Beach, Florida. MBARA has deployed over 150 artificial reefs, everything from reef balls to a large shrimp boat, which is my favorite dive. We see everything from giant Goliath Groupers, to small arrow shrimp (a species that had never been photographed until I discovered them during a survey). Because the survey programs for MBARA and REEF are similar, I encouraged MBARA to become a local Field Station. We are always looking for divers interested in doing surveys on our artificial reefs and can now provide training. I use training gained from REEF, along with my local experience, to teach regional fish identification and throw in some local knowledge for enthusiasts that primarily dive in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

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

We were 20 miles offshore of Mexico Beach, when our boat was surrounded by small Mahi Mahi. I had a few shots left on my camera, so I slipped into the water to use up my film (am I dating myself?). Suddenly, a Mahi sped towards me, followed by a large, dark shadow in pursuit. In a matter of seconds, I could see fins, tails, and bubbles, as a large sailfish did a 360-degree turn right in front of me as it tried to capture the Mahi. In an effort to escape, the Mahi swam over my shoulder smacking me in the side of the head. The bill of the sailfish missed by chest by inches as it veered away. Having lost its prey, it swam around me three times before disappearing into the depths. The entire event lasted less than a minute, but the memory of it will last me a lifetime, especially because I got the photos.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate? What is your most memorable fish find? What fish are you still waiting to find?

I love blennies! They are such a great photo subject—colorful and expressive. With a little patience, most will gladly pose for the camera exhibiting as many poses as a Vogue covergirl. Of course I am a big, big fan of Anna DeLoach’s Blennywatcher blog. My favorite find wasn’t a fish, but a sawblade arrow shrimp, Tozeuma serratum. I have REEF to thank for putting me in touch with Les Wilk who requested critter photos for the upcoming Reef Creature DVD to be published by ReefNet. I didn’t know what a rare find I had until I sent a photo of the unidentified shrimp to Les for the DVD. He sent the photo off to a marine biologist, who identified the shrimp after I collected one. It turns out this shrimp had never been photographed in its natural environment and scientists believed it only lived in deeper waters. The marine biologist was so excited she flew from Texas to our home so we could take out and show her some of “our” shrimp. The fish I would love to check off my life list is the whale shark. With all the diving we do in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m sure it is only a matter of time, but I am still waiting!

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Doing surveys for both MBARA and REEF, I’ve learned it can be fun to get away from the big sites and spend time on something small that isn’t frequented by divers. I’ve spent 45 minutes looking at two 3-foot reefballs. If I hadn’t taken the time to slow down and really look, I would never have seen the small juvenile jackknife-fish, or a pea-sized juvenile trunkfish.

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Eileen Byrne

Sea Turtles - one of Eileen's favorite non-fish sightings! Photo by Carol Cox.

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 Eileen Byrne, a REEF surveyor from Massachusetts. Eileen joined REEF in 2004 and has conducted 59 surveys in both her home state and in the warmer waters of the Caribbean. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is the most interesting thing you've learned doing a REEF fish survey?

I try to find ways to give back in as many aspects of my life as possible. When I learned about REEF, the Great Annual Fish Count, and for what the data is used, I knew I had to participate. I do surveys on as many dives as I can throughout our season and volunteer assist at our local Great Annual Fish Count event.

When I give my dive briefings, I tell everyone that I dive really slowly. For emphasis, I add that moon snails have passed me! They chuckle, but once underwater, they see that I was not exaggerating. Back when I first started surveying, I was slowed by having to stop and think about or look at my cheat sheet to see exactly what fish I had just seen. During the pause, I always saw something else, and I learned that the best way to see things is to move, well, at a snail's pace. If I actually stopped and stared at the same spot for five minutes, I would see tons of stuff.

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

Aside from the water temperature and having to be completely covered in neoprene and still be cold, I love diving in New England. We have it all - eel grass, sandy bottoms, rubble, boulders, reefs, and wrecks. We have squid, shrimp, nudibranchs, and crazy looking fish such as the Sea Raven and Wolf Eel. Our fish may not be as colorful as tropical fish, but we can see some in late summer when they begin to wander into our water. Best of all though, is that local diving is a great day at the beach with friends, and is something we can do weekend after weekend for months at a time rather than once a year for a week.

Where is your favorite place to dive and why?

My favorite place to dive is Cozumel. I've done about 50 dives there in the past 18 months, and fall in love with the diving all over again every time I do my first dive. The reefs are super healthy, there is an abundance of fish and marine life, the water truly is as blue as it appears in photos, drift diving rocks once you get the hang of it, and I've found a dive operator that is perfect for me.

What is your favorite non-fish sighting?

Turtles!!!

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Never stop learning. Take every fish ID course, Fishinar, or whatever training opportunity possible to polish your skills and learn new fish. When you encounter something new underwater, ask your dive buddies what it was. Agree ahead of time on a signal that means "remember this fish and tell me what it is when we surface". Learn the signals so when someone sees something cool and signals it, you know exactly what to look for when you get to that spot.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub