Endangered Nassau grouper in the Caymans will live to spawn another generation: an 11th hour ruling

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Findings from the Grouper Moon Project have led to an 11th hour ruling that will ensure continued protections for the endangered Nassau grouper. The seasonal fishing ban on Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands, which was set to expire in just a few days, has been extended for another eight years. The protections, which were initially enacted in 2003 and included an 8-year sunset clause, prohibit fishing for the species at spawning aggregation sites between November and March (the reproductive season). REEF has been working closely with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DoE) since 2001 as part of the Grouper Moon Project to study Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands and to determine how to best protect this iconic Caribbean reef species. Our research has focused on the west end aggregation site on Little Cayman, which supports one of the last great reproductive populations of this endangered species. REEF is extremely proud of our involvement in the Grouper Moon Project and we look forward to similar conservation victories in the years to come. Lessons learned in the Cayman Islands have benefited Nassau grouper conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean. Watch this 3-minute video to see spectacular footage of the aggregation and to learn more about the project.

Normally solitary and territorial, during the winter full moons Nassau grouper travel and group together to spawn. Due to the reliable timing and location of the spawning aggregations, plus the ease with which these relative loners can be caught while congregating by the hundreds and thousands to spawn, most known Caribbean aggregation sites have been fished to exhaustion. The ground-breaking research conducted as part of the Grouper Moon Project by scientists and volunteers from REEF, the DoE, and Oregon State University, led the DoE to recommend a set of actions necessary to recover and protect the species throughout the Cayman Islands. Actions include: implementing a closed season for Nassau grouper in all Cayman waters from November through March, permanently closing the aggregation sites to fishing year round (because these special places host aggregations of dozens of species throughout the year), and modifying existing catch limits for the species during other times of the year. The Cayman Islands Cabinet is currently reviewing these recommendations. While all those involved in the Grouper Moon Project are pleased that the Marine Conservation Board was able to take action prior to the expiration of the current ban, we are hopeful that Cabinet will enact permanent protections to ensure that there are Nassau grouper on coral reefs for generations to come.

The Grouper Moon Project has been supported in part by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, the NOAA International Coral Reef Conservation Program, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort, Peter Hillenbrand, and REEF member contributions. We greatly appreciate all our members who have contributed financially to REEF to make this important work possible.

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).

2013 Summer Lionfish Derby Series Announced

REEF Board Member, Peter Hughes, with a haul of lionfish at a Derby.

We are excited to announce the 2013 Summer Lionfish Derby Series! Five years ago, REEF began hosting lionfish derbies throughout Florida and the Caribbean to address the lionfish invasion. A lionfish derby is a single day team competition to collect as many lionfish as possible. Teams collect lionfish using nets or spears while SCUBA diving or free diving, and prizes are awarded to the teams with the most lionfish, biggest lionfish, and smallest lionfish caught. Not only do these events reduce lionfish populations, but they also increase education and awareness, provide samples for research, train divers in safe removal techniques, and help develop the market for lionfish as a food fish. To register or learn more, please visit www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies. 2013 Derby dates and locations are: June 22 - Green Turtle Cay Bahamas; July 27 - Fort Lauderdale, FL; August 17 - Palm Beach, FL; September 14 - Key Largo, FL.

Putting It To Work: Who's Using REEF Data, December 2013

REEF Data from Hawaii are being used to evaluate ecosystem services models for coral reefs. Photo by David Andrew.

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:

-Fisheries scientist are using data on Hogfish from Florida, Puerto Rico, and the USVI to evaluate population status and help set effective catch limits as part of the US Fisheries Management Council's stock assessment.

- A scientist from RSMAS at the University of Miami is evaluating the status of Caribbean predatory fish species, including Gray Snapper, Barracuda, and Goliath Grouper.

- An environmental researcher at University of Miami is assessing biodiversity indexes as a measure of effectiveness with ongoing septic tank replacement and canal improvement projects in the Florida Keys.

- A PhD student from University of Hawaii is using data from Maui Nui to conduct coral reef ecosystem services models.

- A researcher from University of Victoria is using data from Washington and British Columbia to evaluate community richness values for temperate rocky reefs.

The Faces of REEF: Herb Gruenhagen

REEF volunteer trainer, Herb Gruenhagen. Photo by Karen Morgan.
Herb with a jellyfish. Photo by Charles Tu.
Photo by Marc Pidcoe.
Sarcastic Fringehead. Photo courtesy New World Publications.
One of Herb's monthly ID classes, held at Ocean Enterprises in San Diego.
The rarely seen Specklefin Midshipman, found and photographed by Herb Gruenhagen.

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 Herb Gruenhagen. Herb has been a REEF member since 2001, and has conducted 208 surveys (all in his home state of California). He is a member of the Pacific Coast Advanced Assessment Team as an Expert Surveyor. Here's what Herb had to say about REEF:

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

In July 2000, the San Diego Ocean Foundation sunk a Canadian Destroyer as an artificial reef. I was one of several divers who performed both fish and invertebrate surveys, using transects, quadrats, and REEF Roving Surveys. When the San Diego Oceans Foundation decided to become a REEF Field Station, I volunteered to become a volunteer REEF instructor. I have been teaching a REEF class each month in San Diego since that time.

What are some of the highlights of your local diving?

I dive the La Jolla Shores most of the time, and it is always changing. There are the resident species, the transients, and the seasonal ones. The resident species will always be there no matter what. The transients can be the many pelagic species that the currents bring in. For example, a while back, we are seeing several different species of jellyfish and the leopard sharks are returning to the warmer water shallows near the Marine Room. The seasonal species are really the special surprises. During the early spring the nudibranchs come out to start their mating, and in the winter, we have a ‘white’ Christmas with all the Market squid schooling, mating, and laying their white finger-like egg cases. Other special surprises can be molas, baby grey whales, midshipman, mantis shrimp, wolf-fishes, and even Finescale Triggerfishes.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned doing a REEF fish survey?

Doing REEF surveys really highlights the many different variations that a given species can take on. Being a REEF surveyor gives you the ability to recognize new species from common species, and all the many variations within the same species. Paying attention to all the details is really important to getting a good ID. I try to get a good image of the fish and ask for help when I’m not sure.

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

After all the years of teaching the courses, I’m just really glad to see local divers coming to my class to expand their knowledge of the local marine life, whether they do one survey or many surveys. I love watching the learning process and expanding the students minds of the many wonderful forms of marine life we have here to enjoy and need to perserve for future generations.

Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

The REEF Field station is the San Diego Oceans Foundation, but the facilities that we use is Ocean Enterprises in San Diego. Ocean Enterprises has been very supportive over the years and everyone really appreciates the use of their classrooms, computer and projector and its central location in the city. Thank you Ocean Enterprises for your many years of support.

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

Well, of course photographing species new to science or that is rare or very uncommon is a highlight. I have photographed several fishes and nudibranchs that fall into one of those categories. My most fascinating fish that I have seen is the Specklefin Midshipman, Porichthys myriaste. We see many juvenile Plainfin Midshipman in the winter, but the Specklefin were quite a find! One of my favorite fishes is the Sarcastic Fringehead. They are one of the few fishes that see you as a threat and will interact with divers and their photo gear. They will charge out of their breeding holes (ok, we are talking about a 6” fish) at the camera lens, thinking they are seeing ‘another’ fringehead in the lens. They will bite all your cables and your finger and charge back into their hole. They will also interact with each other and fearlessly defend their breeding holes by opening their mouths at each other beyond the stretching point.

Herb teaches free Southern California Marine Life ID classes the third Wednesday of each month. Join him!

The Call of the Deep Blue on a Landlocked Intern

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Joe Cavanaugh with our wonderful new intern Lauren.

As we continue to showcase our valuable interns, I mentioned in last months newsletter that we would introduce our remaining fall intern. With that thought in mind please join REEF in welcoming Lauren Finan.  Lauren is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, pursuing her studies in Environmental Policy which is why she was such a good candidate for our program.  She has a strong passion for the quality of our reefs and the ocean and diligently championed for our last remaining fall intern slot.  An avid diver since age 14, she became interested in the quality of our delicate ecosystem, however, due to her locale in Boulder, she was totally landlocked and did not have the ability to get out and dive, and she will be doing plenty of that now, along with working her way through the various levels of our Fish Identification Course.  Lauren role here at REEF will be the coordination of our presence at DEMA this year, as well as maintaining our membership data updates and working on the improvement of our educational/outreach program.  We're fortunate that both our fall interns will be with us until December.

REEF Welcomes New Office Manager

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Bonnie Greenberg recently joined REEF as the office manager. She brings with her more than 20 years of experience in non-profit management and entrepreneurship: including work with Marathon Community Theatre, Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys , director of marketing with a family business in Pennsylvania and a few years working as a journalist for local media. She likes to snorkel, sail, spend time with friends, read great books now and then, and create a good meal. Having said for years she was writing her own version of the Great American Novel - Bonnie spent the past two years as the front desk associate with a small Florida Keys Resort while she toiled at her story. She’s about half-way there. She holds a BFA from Emerson College. Bonnie resides in Key Largo, FL with her long-term boyfriend and 3 cats. Next time you find yourself in Key Largo, please swing by REEF HQ to meet Bonnie and the other REEF staff.

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.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub