Three "REEF" Non-Profits Team Up to Protect Akumal Reefs

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Eric Engler, Gabriela Nava Martinez, Joe Cavanaugh - ReefAid, Reefcheck, and REEF
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Aerial View of Protected Area
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Mayan Ruins Near Resort at Tulum
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Shore View from Bahia Principe
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Large Elkhorn Coral Stand Near Protected Area

In an Enews article last May, I wrote about a collaborative effort between REEF and the Bahia Principe Resort in Akumal, Mexico.  The Resort has been working with ReefAid ever since Hurricane Wilma (2005) did major damage to the reefs just in front of the resort, in an effort to study, protect, and restore these reefs. I was originally invited down to conduct a fish census on a large patch reef area off the beach from the property.   The destruction to the inshore reef during Wilma was severe and ever since, Bahia Principe has worked with ReefAid to restore this patch reef area, establishing a protected zone around the most hard-hit areas.  Part of Bahia Principe's long-term plan is to create a mitigation plan for future storms and to educate guests about ways they, too, can help protect the reefs.  The Hotel Gran Bahia Principe is the Yucatan's largest resort complex, and there are currently 14 such resorts worldwide.  After our last visit, ReefAid's Founder, Eric Engler and I co-wrote a protection and monitoring plan for the Resort that included periodic roving diver surey assessments, special signs and enforcement of no-swim areas, a coral nursery, and coral and invertebrate monitoring using another non-profit's methodology (ReefCheck). 

On our last trip a few weeks ago, Eric and I received Reefcheck training over two days with Gabriela Georgina Nava Martinez, learning their survey methodology.  Gaby also taught a Reefcheck class to the Bahia Principe dive staff , their onsite turtle rescue non-rpfit, Ecologica Bahia, and some of the Resort public relations personnel..   Bahia Principe is now a REEF Field Station and is close to becoming an educational center for REEF, teaching fish ID classes and training Resort guests in how to conduct fish surveys.   Resort staff will soon routinely conduct Roving Diver Surveys of both the protected area and the offshore reefs frequented by multiple dive operators. Additionally, Reefcheck will train the dive staff to conduct 3-4 surveys per year at first to form a baseline assessment of the inshore protected reef.   And finally, this year REEF is running a Field Survey to Bahia Principe (May 17-24, 2008).  Please see our Field Survey page on our website at http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule  to learn more about our upcoming survey and how to participate.

The collaborative efforts between our three non-profits in Akumal represent a proactive involvement among multiple stakeholders to protect a critical resource, one that is very susceptible to damage from development and excessive tourist pressures.   The ultimate goal of this synergistic, cooperative effort is to protect a large inshore reef area (see images) and improve the reef integrity with the addition of well-placed coral recruitment modules.  To be candid, much of the Mexican Riviera is slated to be developed by an increasing number of resorts, most with requisite golf courses.  And there are other environmental concerns in addition to the coral reefs offshore that form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef such as all the cenotes (sink-holes) with their endemic terrestrial and aquatic species; the crucial watershed provided by the cenotes; loss of mangroves; the regional rainforest cover that is in jeopardy; excessive nutrient loading from all the resorts and urban development; not to mention the cultural world heritage significance of the Mayan communities and archaeological sites.  However, the good news is that if Gran Bahia Principe is voluntarily willing to adopt special protection measures for their resort, these may serve as a "eco-friendly" archetype for other resorts in the region.   This partnership building between organizations at the regional and international level bodes well for the adoption of some conservation plans for the area.  Whether the proposed regional development can be slowed to a sustainable level is another story that time will tell. 

If you are interested in learning more, here is an excellent summary article on some of the initiatives between resorts and non-profits working to preserve the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef from the NY Times last week. http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/travel/24headsup.html?emc=eta1

REEF to Host Two Citizen Science Panel Discussions in Florida Keys

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REEF volunteers are citizen scientists, collecting underwater data to expand knowledge about marine life populations. Photo by Ron Lucas.

On Tuesday, February 26, REEF will host a community panel discussion to raise awareness about how volunteers contribute to scientific understanding of the Florida Keys environment. Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York will lead the discussion. Florida Keys-based citizen science practitioners will present on local projects and ways for volunteers to get involved. Topics include fish and bird surveying, native plants and coral restoration. A reception with the speakers will begin at 6:30, followed by presentations at 7 PM. This event will be held at the Key Largo Public Library and is free and open to the public.

Speakers include:

  • Leda Cunningham, REEF
  • Rick Bonney, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
  • Bryant and Nancy Diersing, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (volunteers)
  • Janice Duquesnel, Florida State Parks
  • Ken Nedimyer, Coral Restoration Foundation

A second panel discussion will be held on Wednesday, March 12 at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West and will focus on citizen science projects in the lower Florida Keys. Speakers include:

  • Leda Cunningham, REEF
  • Rick Bonney, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
  • Alison Higgins, The Nature Conservancy
  • Cory Walter, Mote Marine Laboratory
  • Jonathan Rizzo, National Weather Service

Please join REEF staff and community partners for at least one of these educational evenings.

17th Great Annual Fish Count is Here

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REEF Member Judie Clee Surveying. Photo by Ron Lucas.
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REEF Member Brian Hufford Surveying.

The 17th Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) has arrived! GAFC is a month long event coordinated by REEF Field Stations that encourages volunteer divers and snorkelers to participate in recreational trips to raise awareness regarding marine habitats and trends in fish populations. REEF partners and Field Stations have organized everything from group dives and snorkels to photo contests, BBQs, and aquarium tours. This is a great opportunity to take a free REEF Fish ID class and connect with other individuals as well as groups, such as local dive operations and non-profit organizations, who are also interested in doing the same objectives. Numerous activities have been scheduled for the Pacific Coast, Hawaii, California, Washington, Florida, Maine, British Columbia, and many other regions- and still more are being added! Details for scheduled events can be found on the GAFC website. Each year GAFC events generate approximately 2,000 surveys in July alone and increase the interest and involvement of hundreds of surveyors worldwide. Participating in a GAFC event is a great way to make an active contribution to marine conservation and get involved with what REEF does year round- engage volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect critical, valid, and cost-effective data. We hope you get involved!

Travel Trips and Tips - October

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Cozumel is one of the very few places that REEF surveyors can find the endemic Splendid Toadfish. A few spaces just opened up on the REEF Trip to Cozumel in December. Photo by Doug Biffard.
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In addition to fish, REEF surveyors report sea turtles, such as this one seen by Bev Biffard last year in Cozumel. Photo by Doug Biffard.

Looking for a special gift for that certain someone. A 2009 REEF Trip makes a perfect gift. REEF Trips are not only fun, have diving and fish watching involved (which makes it perfect by my standards) but these trips are educational, green and are scheduled to some of the most beautiful Caribbean dive destinations. Also as an added bonus - all divers need a buddy so you get a good reason to give yourself a trip too!

REEF Trips are filling up fast. One trip that has been sold out for almost a year, Cozumel in December, just had a few spaces open up. This is your opportunity to join REEF Expert and Cozumel local, Sheryl Shea, on an excellent dive vacation. Sheryl is an a-fishy-a-nado extraordinaire and will be sure to infuse great fish watching, interesting local history and lots of fun on these trips. There are 3 spaces available during Week 1, December 6 – 14, including an opportunity for a double occupancy room – 1 male looking for a roommate and 1 female looking for a roommate. So if you are flying solo and don’t want to pay single occupancy we will put you in touch with a potential roommate. Please give us a call for more information and to reserve your space 305-852-0030. There are also a few spaces still available during the second trip, December 13 – 18. Please call the REEF Travel Desk for booking this trip – 877-295-7333.

So remember give the gift of Fish Watching for the holidays – we can prepare you a beautiful gift certificate and even arrange for it to be presented in an autographed fish ID book (or creature or coral) wrapped in Bottom Crawlers Holiday gift wrap. REEF Trips are a great way to enjoy yourself while making a valuable contribution to REEF on several different levels. Remember make this holiday season one that is All About The Fish!

REEF Data Used To Evaluate the Status of Big Fish and Fisheries in the Caribbean

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Nassau grouper is one of 20 predatory fish species that were evaluated in a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS One. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Data collected by REEF volunteer surveyors from 86 sites in 22 Caribbean nations were used in the analysis. Stallings 2009.

Data collected as part of the REEF Volunteer Survey Project were the basis of a recent publication evaluating the effect of human population size on coral reef fish populations. The sweeping study, conducted by researcher Dr. Chris Stallings of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, revealed that sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region’s marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries. The study, which used data collected by REEF volunteers at sites in 22 Caribbean nations over 15 years, demonstrates the power of volunteer and community research efforts by non-scientists. Data are often insufficient at region-wide scales to assess the effects of extraction in coral reef ecosystems of developing nations. The REEF citizen science project fills this gap by generating valid and needed data over large geographic areas over long time periods.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Dr. Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. The study found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Stallings said that although several factors -- including loss of coral reef habitats -- contributed to the general patterns, careful examination of the data suggests overfishing as the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. He pointed to the Nassau grouper as a prime example. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have virtually disappeared from many Caribbean nearshore areas and are endangered throughout their range.

Dr. Stalling's article on the study, “Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities,” was published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One. The paper is available for download here.

To find out more about how REEF Volunteer Survey Project data have been used by scientists and government agencies, visit the Publications page on the REEF Website.

Reports From the Field - 2009 Bermuda Field Survey

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Thirteen lucky REEF members joined Anna and Ned Deloach, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook for a Field Survey to remember in Bermuda.
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The beautiful Puddingwife, one of the largest wrasse species in the western Atlantic. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Yellowhead Wrasse in Bermuda show unique coloration patterns. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A teeny tiny, baby Bermuda Chub found under floating Sargassum. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Over eight years ago, REEF expanded its flagship Fish Survey Project into Bermuda. Since then, local surveyors have contributed over 2500 surveys to the sighting database! In October, thirteen volunteers joined local REEF hosts Judie Clee and Chris Flook for a delightfully full schedule. After two extended survey dives each day, we were treated to a night snorkel and picnic to watch glowworms, a slideshow and dinner at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a private, guided tour of the nature preserve on Nonsuch Island, and a reception and presentations by the scientists from BREAM (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme). The week was topped off with a grand finale dinner and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Park.

One of the best things about fishwatching is seeing something new. Many areas have endemic fish and experienced fishwatchers know that fish coloration and behaviors can vary a lot from region to region. We arrived prepared to add Bermuda Bream, Bermuda Halfbeaks and Gwelly jacks to our lifelists but found ourselves equally thrilled to see the Bermuda version of the Yellowhead wrasse, called the Redback (for its distinctive red coloration) and the brilliant jewel colors of their Puddingwives. Between dives, Chris Flook, from the Bermuda Aquarium, filled buckets with rafts of Sargassum seaweed and pointed out juvenile chubs, crabs, shrimps, pipefish and frogfish. Judie’s expert eye helped us sort out the damselfish puzzle. We dived several times in an area where the Emerald Parrotfish was once quite common but has not been seen for many years. Our possible sightings have generated some excitement and Judie and Chris are investigating further. Our total species count for the week was 115 and included a rare sighting of a Conchfish.

Thanks go out to Triangle Diving for the welcome BBQ (and Lionfish hors d’oeuvres) and their excellent diving services. And very special thanks to the Bermuda Zoological Society for funding REEF in Bermuda and for underwriting many of our special activities of the week. We’ll be back – and promise that it won’t take eight years!

As this report reminds us -- REEF trips are more than just your average dive vacation. Be sure to check out the REEF trip 2010 schedule, which can be found online at www.REEF.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. We encourage you to join us on our adventures in 2010 and Take a Trip the Counts!

REEF Volunteers Conduct Annual Expedition to Monterey Bay

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The REEF team aboard the Monterey Express.
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Long-time Pacific REEF surveyor and AAT member, John Wolfe, reviews sightings with Keith Rootsaert.
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Stunning underwater habitat at the outer pinnacles near Carmel Bay in the MBNMS. The bottom is covered with invertebrates, like the colorful Purple Hydrocoral. Great fish life too, like the gopher rockfish resting on the rock. Photo by Chad King/MBNMS.

Members of REEF's Pacific Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) and other active surveyors gathered in central California earlier this month to survey fish and invertebrate life in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Twenty-two divers conducted over 140 REEF surveys at twelve sites during the week-long project. This was the 8th year that the coordinated expedition has been conducted, and the data collected serve as a valuable time-series of information on the status and trends of populations within the Sanctuary. The team was led by REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens. Dr. Steve Lonhart, a lead scientist from the MBNMS, and Chad King from the MBNMS, also joined the group for the week to provide valuable local expertise.

In addition to this annual monitoring project, volunteers conduct REEF surveys year-round during their regular diving activities in the area. REEF surveys have been conducted in the Sanctuary since 1997, and to date, over 2,600 surveys have been submitted from the MBNMS in to the REEF database. Click here to see a current summary of REEF data from the MBNMS. The Sanctuary is home to many colorful fish and invertebrates and is a popular spot for sport diving. REEF data collected in the MBNMS are currently being analyzed to document changes in key rocky reef fish species. Projects like the annual MBNMS monitoring are a great way for active REEF volunteers to apply their skills and expertise. These projects are also just one more reason for REEF surveyors to improve their identification skills and increase their survey experience level.

A big thank you to the participating AAT members and other REEF volunteers, and to Dr. Steve Lonhart and Chad King for their participation and logistical support. We also greatly appreciate George Peterson and Justin Kantor from the Monterey Bay Aquarium for hosting our first evening seminar. Field support was provided by the Monterey Express; thanks to owner Tim Doreck and to Captain Phil Sammet for serving at the helm of our adventures. This project would not be possible without the financial support of an anonymous foundation.

REEF Volunteers of the Year 2010

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Liz teaching fish ID at Kahekili Beach on Maui.

REEF proudly awards our 2010 Volunteer(s) of the Year award to Donna Brown and Liz Foote. Donna and Liz both live on Maui in Hawaii, where they have been active in REEF since 2001 when we expanded the Fish Survey Project to the Hawaiian Islands. Donna has been a REEF member since 1994 and Liz since 1999. Both are members of the Hawaiian Islands Advanced Assessment Team and collectively have conducted 361 surveys. Donna and Liz were instrumental during the expansion to Hawaii. They provided technical assistance in the development of the survey and training materials and supported a growing network of local REEF surveyors. Through the years, these volunteers served as incredible ambassadors of the program, generating a core group of dedicated REEFers, who have in turn have carried the REEF torch. The Fish Identification Network (FIN), a local REEF group, grew out of their efforts. 10 years and 10,000 Hawaii surveys later (as of January 2011), REEF is going strong on the islands. Donna and her husband George have also been a part of the South Pacific expansion team, and participated in two REEF training trips to American Samoa. Both Donna and Liz continue to be very active in many other regional marine environmental issues in addition to their REEF activities.

REEF volunteers are the cornerstone of the organization. Without this dedicated corps, our marine conservation programs would not exist. They are central to the REEF Volunteer Survey Project, in which over 14,000 divers and snorkelers have submitted their sightings information to the largest marine life database in the world. REEF volunteers conduct important marine conservation research alongside scientists as part of the Grouper Moon Project and the Lionfish Invasion Program.

The REEF Staff and Board of Trustees extend a big thank you to Liz and Donna and congratulate them on all of their marine conservation efforts and great work on behalf of our organization!

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Kenny Tidwell

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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 feature Kenny Tidwell (REEF member since 1998). Kenny is a member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team in the Tropical Western Atlantic and has conducted 291 surveys. Here's what Kenny had to say about REEF:

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

I had been scuba diving for many years and after several hundred dives, I was honestly getting a little bored with what seemed to me as basically the same stuff on every dive. Little did I know I had been blindly swimming by some pretty amazing stuff that I didn’t even realize was there! I was lucky enough to take a dive trip to Bonaire in 1993 where I first met Jerry Ligon who is a naturalist in the area and inspired me to become a fish watcher! I immediately bought Paul Humann’s Caribbean fish ID book and made it my mission to learn something new on every dive. Around that same time, I started reading about REEF in dive magazines and liked what I saw about the organization's mission and activities. I had long wanted to go on one of their field survey trips and finally signed up along with my wife, Vickie, to go on my first REEF Discovery field survey trip to Puerto Rico led by Paul Humann. After that first trip, I was hooked and would rather dive with other REEF divers than do any other dive activity. I had finally figured out why I was getting a little bored with scuba. REEF really breathed new life into my diving!

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?

I have been on about one or two field survey trips each year since I started diving with REEF. In addition to my first Discovery trip to Puerto Rico, I have been to the Sea of Cortez, Lee Stocking Island, Bonaire, Little Cayman, a lionfish research trip to Bahamas, and several times to Cozumel. The highlight of each trip was the opportunity to meet and learn from other REEF divers who share a similar mission.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

I strongly believe in the mission of the organization and sincerely want to contribute something from my diving efforts. It has been a real challenge to me to try and learn as much not only about fish ID, but also about fish behavior. I am just like a birder who wants to find that new species to add to their list. It is a real thrill to me to add something new to my list and to find something I have been looking at in the books, but haven’t yet seen in the ocean!

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Going on field survey trips and interacting and learning from other divers. I have learned a lot and have met some wonderful REEF members who have really inspired me, including Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach, Sheryl Shea, Franklin and Cassandra Neal, Lad Akins, Brice and Christy Semmens, Judie Clee, and many many others! I actually enjoy the classroom time almost as much as the diving itself! I only wish I had hooked up with REEF sooner! I have also used the opportunity to invite other divers and snorkelers that I meet on trips outside of REEF to tell them about the organization and invite them to participate. Each time I am on a dive boat and have a survey slate in my hand, it always seems to invite an inquiry as to what I am doing? I use that window of opportunity to try and inspire new fish watchers. We have given away many of the waterproof underwater fish ID books to divers and snorkelers that we meet in order to get them more interested in learn the amazing variety of marine life around them that most seem to not even recognize that they are there, much less know what they are looking at.

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

All of the REEF field stations that I have visited are great, but if I had to pick one, I would choose Aqua Safari. I first dove with them in 2005 about 5 wks after Hurricane Wilma struck Cozumel. That is when I had the opportunity to meet Sheryl Shea and the rest of the staff at Aqua Safari. I have been back for every field survey there since that time with the exception of last year when I was in a severe accident that curtailed my diving for quite a while. Sheryl is a GREAT teacher and a real inspiration to dive with as is all of the staff at Aqua Safari. Tracy Griffin is also a great teacher and will be leading the trip this year. There are places in the Caribbean that you can count on finding more species to log on your survey, but the field survey trip to Cozumel always is a lot of fun.

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

Increasing the awareness of the fragility or our marine environment I think is critical to REEF’s mission. The contribution of an enormous amount of data to document declining fish populations is valuable, which changes how people view the fragile nature of the environment and ultimately affects public policy to protect those resources. The lionfish project is extremely important in addressing an issue that is rapidly decimating fish populations on reefs where they have established themselves and in finding solutions to this problem is critical to protecting the reefs.

Where is your favorite place to dive and why?

Usually the last place that I have visited, but if I had to pick one it would probably be Bonaire or Little Cayman. You can’t beat the number of species and abundance of fish life in Bonaire, but I really like the island of Little Cayman for its beauty and lack of development and it also has some of the best diving in the Caribbean along Bloody Bay Wall. I have been to each location several times and would go back to either in a heartbeat.

2012 Field Survey Season Kicked Off In Nevis & St. Kitts

Nine REEF members joined REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, for a Field Survey week in Nevis last week, kicking off the 2012 REEF Trip season with a bang. The group stayed at Oualie Beach Resort on Nevis and dove with the on-site dive operator, Scuba Safaris. Over 120 surveys were conducted, which is a great addition to the REEF database for this region (prior to this trip, there were only 7 surveys from Nevis). Each afternoon, the group would gather for a few hours to discuss the day's sightings, review images and video, and enter survey data. Everyone really enjoyed the diving. Fish diversity and abundance was relatively high, and during the week the group documented just under 200 species of fish! Some of the more rare and exciting finds included bluestripe dartfish, mimic blenny, dwarf sand perch, flying gurnard, striped croaker, Atlantic spadefish, and nine line goby. Participants ranged from brand new REEF surveyors to a few of our most experienced, and a great time was had by all. Check out the online album posted here. To find out more about the Field Survey Trips program, visit www.REEF.org/trips.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub