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.

REEF Hits the Dive Shows!

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REEF Volunteers, April and Ron Theod talk REEF with a fellow diver while Tatum Semmens looks on.

REEF is taking our message on the road this spring and summer to a few of the regional dive shows. Last month, several volunteers and REEF Director of Science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, greeted visitors at the Northwest Dive and Travel Show in Tacoma, WA. The REEF booth provides an opportunity to spread the word about the fun of conducting marine life surveys and the valuable role that citizen science data can have in marine conservation and management. Our next stop is SCUBA Show 2009 in Long Beach, May 30 and 31. Come by and visit us at the booth!

REEF Trains Over 100 Divers in the Florida Keys As Permitted Lionfish Collectors

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Lad Akins demonstrates safe collection technique of the venomous lionfish during a workshop in the Florida Keys. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.
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Over 100 on-the-water professionals attended information sessions and training on the lionfish invasion. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.

REEF is working in close partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) to diligently track lionfish reports and initiate removal efforts in South Florida. The first confirmed lionfish in the Florida Keys was reported and captured within 24 hours in January 2009 (see previous enews article). Subsequent early reports in March-June were met with successful rapid response. However, beginning in July, reports began to increase beyond the capacity and range of available trained responders. To help combat the growing problem, REEF introduced over 100 on-the-water professionals to the latest lionfish information and collecting and handling techniques during workshops held in Key Largo, Marathon and Key West earlier this Fall. The workshops were funded by the NOAA Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

Because most Florida Keys reefs are managed under the guidance of the FKNMS and some of the most visited sites are no-take Sanctuary Protected Areas, special protocols and permits were developed to allow removal of lionfish in safe, effective and environmentally considerate manners. The goal of the program is to continue to track sightings and remove lionfish as soon as they are sighted to minimize impacts on key reef areas. Successful control of invasive lionfish requires adaptive management to include involving the general public and REEF is proud to be a part of this effort. With a large corps of dive professionals trained and additional workshops planned for early next year, the Keys are working to stay ahead of the invasion through early detection and rapid response. To report a lionfish sighting, visit REEF's Exotic Species Sighting Form -- http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report For more information on the program or to join in future workshops, contact Lad Akins at Lad@reef.org or call REEF HQ at (305) 852-0030.

News Tidbits

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REEF Field Surveys - Take a dive vacation that counts! There's still some space left on a few of the Field Surveys in 2010. Destinations include Cozumel with Sheryl Shea, Key Largo with Ned and Anna DeLoach, Bonaire with Jessie Armacost, and Grand Cayman with Lad Akins. These trips all offer unique treasures and are sure to please every level of diver as well as beauty above water for your non-diving companions. Join us on one of these exciting weeks full of fish ID, friendship, new discoveries and great memories! Our full field survey schedule, trip details, and sign up information can be found here.

New Field Stations - Welcome to our newest Field Stations who have joined us in the last month. Field Stations are shops, charters, instructors and organizations that support REEF in many ways - offering classes, REEF survey opportunities, stocking survey supplies, etc. For more information and to check out the other 170+ REEF Field Stations, go to the Field Station page on the REEF website.

  • Pacific Adventure Charters - Hood Canal, WA
  • Rendezvous Dive Adventures - Barkley Sound, BC Canada
  • DiveSafe International - Campbell River, BC Canada
  • Thunder Reef Divers - Vancouver, WA
  • The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight

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    REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 40,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

    This month we highlight Pam Wade (member since 1998). Pam lives in California and has 381 REEF surveys under her belt as a level 4 surveyor. Through REEF, Pam’s interest in fishwatching has encouraged her not only to dive more, but to explore the world’s oceans in other regions. Earlier this month, Pam was on a REEF Field Survey in the Sea of Cortez with REEF scientists, Drs. Christy and Brice Semmens. Here’s what Pam had to say about diving with REEF:

    What is your favorite thing about being a REEF member?

    When you join REEF you have the opportunity to do more than just send in a donation and get a beautiful calendar. You actually get to be an active participant in fulfilling the mission of conserving marine ecosystems. I love feeling that my dives have a purpose. You don't have to change the way you dive, the only difference is that you know what you are looking at, you see a lot more and the enthusiasm transfers to everyone you dive with. Pretty soon, everyone wants to know the names of the fish and everyone is learning and appreciating and protecting the treasure we have under the sea!

    What was your experience with REEF trips?

    The very first trip I signed up for was a REEF Discovery trip to Bonaire with Paul Humann in July 2001. Those classes gave me a good foundation in fish identification: what to look for, where to look, fish anatomy and the identification clues that really matter. Paul pointing out a Yellow Tube Sponge, said you can always add one more fish to your survey; those sponges are home to the Short Striped Goby! I met Ann B. from Arkansas on that trip, and I’ve been following Ann across the oceans identifying fish and invertebrates ever since. In August 2008, I participated in the REEF Critter trip to Saint Vincent with Paul and Ned. That’s where I passed the level 3 test. Bill Twees was invaluable in his help pointing out the Black Brotula, Sunshine Fish, Flag Fin Blenny…..I’m looking forward to diving Saba with REEF in 2011!

    Do you have any surveying tips to pass along to other REEF surveyors?

    Lately I have been working on ways to more efficiently record my survey information on my slate to ensure that it’s complete and ready to enter on the computer when I get home. As part of this, I’ve been using the various tools and reports available on the REEF website, including the Geographic Zone Reports for the specific area that I am going to dive and the Geographic Zone Code lists with site names. This gives me more time between dives to enjoy getting to know the other divers and identifying fish for everyone else onboard. The enthusiasm is catching! Why else would a dedicated photographer on the Sea Hunter at the Cocos Islands be excited enough about capturing a Cocos Barnacle Blenny feeding that they missed the whale shark passing overhead?

    The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Jim Pendergrass

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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 Jim Pendergrass (REEF member since 2008). To date, Jim has conducted 113 surveys along the west coast from California to British Columbia, and he is a member of the Pacific Advanced Assessment Team. Here's what Jim had to say about REEF:

    When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? Seven years ago my wife Chris and I took a Habitat Diver class from Eugene Skin Divers Supply and began volunteer diving at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We became interested in fish/invert ID and the DSO, Vallorie Hodges, told us about REEF. It was a perfect fit for us!

    If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight? We’ve been on several REEF Advanced Assessment Team projects, and I think the most memorable was the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary out of Neah Bay, WA. The habitat was unique, the critter diversity was astounding, and the folks on the trip were great. We learned a lot!

    What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is your favorite part about being a REEF member? We’re always interested to see what we’ll find this dive and compare it to our previous dives and those other divers have logged. Every dive is guaranteed to be a little different than the last one. We enjoy sharing our experiences with others and encouraging them to become involved. That’s why we started teaching the classes and holding REEF dives for our dive club. Oregon hasn’t had that many surveys completed yet, and our goal is to change that!

    Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? Where is your favorite place to dive and why? We average about 100 dives/year in Oregon, Washington and BC, and travel to CA and the tropics when we can. We really like cold water diving. Our ‘home’ dive sites are at the mouth of Yaquina Bay in Newport and at the north Jetty of the Siuslaw – but our favorite place to dive is Browning Pass off the north coast of Vancouver Island. The diving there is really spectacular, and the topside scenery can’t be beat.

    Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop? Our local shop and mother REEF field station is Eugene Skin Divers Supply. We can’t say enough good things about Mike, Diana, John and the rest of the staff. They’re knowledgeable, friendly and committed to making every dive experience a rewarding one. They treat everyone like part of the family. We couldn’t do this without them!

    Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members? I think the biggest thing is to go slow – or you miss the little things. And sometimes they are the coolest of all! Take pictures if you can for future reference and identification, and realize that learning fish and inverts is a constant process. One at a time. After hundreds of dives we’re still learning!

    The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Paul and Marta Bonatz

    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 Paul and Marta Bonatz. Marta joined REEF in 1998 and she drew Paul in 2005. They have become active surveyors, and each has conducted 240 surveys. Here's what they had to say about REEF:

    What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

    Our favorite part of being REEF members is working with a network of other “citizen scientists” to make a difference. Interacting with like-minded divers in an organization that is focused on saving the marine environment is fulfilling. It’s also gratifying to see the change in newly recruited “fish geeks” as they learn more about the underwater world.

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

    We’ve been on two REEF field survey trips and plan to do more! The first, which hooked us on fish watching, was to Culebra, Puerto Rico. The highlight was the abundant staghorn coral. Unfortunately, it was totally devoid of adult fish. Our second trip was a lionfish control study in Belize. Spending a week focused on spotting and capturing 506 lionfish in the Belize Atolls with Peter Hughes and Lad Akins was exhilarating. We learned about the hazard this invasive species poses to the indigenous Caribbean fish population, and we now work to educate others about this urgent problem.

    Where is your favorite place to dive and why?

    Avid divers are frequently asked to name their favorite vacation destination. When we are asked this question our honest response is “Wherever we are currently diving”. REEF surveying teaches you to appreciate interesting finds on every dive. We sometimes spend an entire dive in a few square yards watching small critters in their habitat. Although every location is unique, the place we visit most frequently is Little Cayman. The sheerness of Bloody Bay wall, the healthy marine environment, and the stunning Nassau Grouper make for an incomparable mixture.

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

    We have to include two favorite underwater encounters – we couldn’t agree on just one! The first was on a Manta Ray research trip to the Maldives. At a break in the action while monitoring Mantas on 5 x 1 hour shifts at North Male Atoll, we discovered an octopus positioned on a rock quietly observing us from the distance of a few feet. He welcomed us back every shift! The second was an encounter with a dolphin named “Spot" on Cayman Brac. Spot arrived on Cayman Brac after Hurricane Mitch, and he swam and played with divers on many of the Brac dive sites. Spot disappeared one day and everyone feared the worst. Two years later while diving in Cayman Brac we noticed a pod of dolphins near the boat. Spot edged up to the boat to show off his new family. He wouldn’t let us interact with him anymore, but he wanted everyone to know he was healthy and happy in his new life. It was an electric moment.

    Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Hornby Island Diving

    Tiger Rockfish, a great find for a PacNW surveyor. Photo by Janna Nichols.

    REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals, and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.

    This month we feature Hornby Island Diving in British Columbia, a REEF Field Station since 2010. Owners Rob and Amanda Zielinski have always been conservation-minded and involved in local projects, so when they heard about REEF several years ago through their repeat customers (who were REEF surveyors) and through discussions with REEF staff, it was an easy choice to become a REEF Field Station. Although divers have been flocking to this area for years, not many surveys had been conducted in the area, so they felt this would be a good way to get the word out about REEF and to encourage divers in that direction. Being a dive charter and lodge, they have the facilities and space for classes. They just hosted twelve enthusiastic surveyors for 5 days for a REEF Field Survey complete with nightly seminars in their meeting area. Amanda is very knowledgeable about marine life and has conducted REEF surveys herself, so she is a good one to ask any questions you might have if you’re just getting started. The area boasts some big attractions for REEF surveyors, including frequent sightings of Tiger Rockfish and Yelloweye Rockfish, both adult and juvenile.

    Amanda has some great ideas up her sleeve for getting divers involved in conducting surveys while at Hornby Island Diving, whether for just a weekend or for a week. She says, “If everyone who is a REEF surveyor comes and does one survey, and everyone who’s not, joins REEF and gets started, think of the possibilities.” She’s also been collaborating with another REEF Field Station in the area (The Edge Diving Centre in North Vancouver, BC) to provide more in-depth fish and invertebrate ID training.

    Putting It to Work: Who's Using REEF Data, April 2013

    REEF data on lingcod are being used to evaluate population trends in Washington State. Photo by Chad King/NOAA.

    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 scientists from the Nature Conservancy in Washington is using REEF data to evaluate patterns of biodiversity in the Salish Sea and along the Oregon Coast as part of TNC's ecoregional analysis.

    - A student at UNC Chapel Hill is using REEF data from the Galapagos Islands for use in a multimedia class project on data visualization.

    - The Underwater Council of British Columbia requested REEF survey activity to be used in the BC Marine Conservation Analysis database being developed as part of the Marine Planning Partnership.

    - A scientist from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is using data on Goliath Grouper populations in South Florida in the KeysMAP Marine Climate Change Adaptation Planning Project.

    - Scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used data on lingcod, giant Pacific octopus, and other species to evaluate distribution and trends.

    Putting It To Work: New Publication on Manta and Mobula Rays Published Using REEF Data

    A Manta Ray swimming at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Jackie Reid/NOAA.

    We are excited to share a new scientific paper published last month in the journal PLoS ONE that included REEF data - Global Population Trends and Human Use Patterns of Manta and Mobula Rays, by Christine Ward-Paige, Brendal Davis, and Boris Worm. Despite being the world’s largest rays and providing significant revenue through dive tourism, little is known about the population status, exploitation, and trade volume of mobulids (Manta and Mobula species). There is anecdotal evidence, however, that mobulid populations are declining, largely due to the recent emergence of a widespread trade for their gill rakers. Researchers from Dalhousie University and eShark.org used expert divers’ observations from two citizen science programs, REEF's Volunteer Fish Survey Project and eShark.org, to describe global manta and devil ray abundance trends and human use patterns. The study highlights the relative rarity of aggregation sites on a global scale and reveals that many populations appear to be declining. The authors warn that newly emerging fisheries for the rays gill-­‐rakers likely exceed their ability to recover. The study also demonstrates the deficiency of official catch reports, as only four countries have ever reported landing manta or devil rays– Indonesia, Liberia, Spain, and Ecuador. However, numerous diver reports compiled in the paper illustrate that many other countries are regularly landing and selling these rays without reporting.

    The paper can be viewed online here. A complete listing of all papers that have featured REEF data can be found online here.

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub