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.

REEF News Tidbits

A Big Win-Win: Have a Great Dive Trip in Key Largo and Support REEFFor REEF Members: Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort will donate 20% of the cost of your Key Largo dive vacation to REEF. This offer of support has no time or package restrictions. Contact the folks at Amoray for more information.

Very Few Spaces Left on 2008 REEF Field Survey TripsStill to come in 2008 are REEF Field Survey trips to Key Largo, St. Vincent, Sea of Cortez, and Cozumel. Very few spaces are left and several trips are sold out, book today. Coming soon -- the 2009 Trip Schedule!

Don't Just Blow Bubbles This Summer!  Participate in the 17th Great Annual Fish CountAn exciting lineup of free identification seminars and survey dives are being organized around the country by REEF partners.  Check out the GAFC Website for more details and to find out how to organize your own GAFC event.  And be sure to watch the GAFC calendar of events to see what's being planned in your area.  

Coming Soon -- Online Data Entry For the Northeast and Tropical Eastern PacificFollowing the successful expansion of our Online Data Entry interface for surveys in Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast regions last year, REEF is currently adding the capability for the Northeast (Virginia - Newfoundland) and the Tropical Eastern Pacific (Baja - Galapagos Islands). We hope that this will facilitate an increase in surveying in these important regions. To log your data online, visit http://www.reef.org/dataentry/login.php.

Lionfish Letters from the Field - Eleuthera

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Lad Akins (REEF) and Stephanie Green (Simon Fraser University) show Island School students the finer points of lionfish netting.
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Indo-Pacific Lionfish are now omni-present throughout the Bahamas, including this one sighted in Exuma. Photo by Sean Nightingale.

Following the most recent Indo-Pacific Lionfish expedition at Stuart Cove’s in Nassau, Bahamas, we kicked off the next phase of our critical research on this invasive species in Eleuthera. Supporters, Trish and David Ferguson, served as hosts for the week. Earlier this summer, REEF staff set up 11 study sites, tagging 30 fish on six different patch reef and clearing the other 5 sites of lionfish. This past week, I revisited those tagging sites and documented any movement of lionfish. We then following up with early morning, mid-day and evening activity observations to see what the fish were up to and when. The observations involved pre-sun up dives and 2-3 hour bottom times. With some very early and late dive times, the data collected is showing interesting patterns of low light activity.

After five days of intense data collecting at the Ferguson’s we headed down to Cape Eleuthera to meet with staff and students at the Island School and Cape Eleuthera Institute(CEI). The facility is completely self contained, producing their own electricity via solar and wind, their own biodiesel, raising cobia and tilapia in an aquaculture facility and even growing their own hydroponic vegetables. A very impressive operation and an incredible group of staff and students. We were able to conduct collecting and dissecting demonstrations for the coral research class and then do a packed house talk to all of the staff and students from TIS as well as a number from the local Deep Creek Middle School. There is strong interest in collaborating on future lionfish studies as well as incorporating fish surveys into the regular research curriculum at the IS and CEI. Look for future REEF projects to be scheduled here in 2009.  Visit our Lionfish Research page for more information.

Endangered Species Day 2009

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REEF's research on Nassau grouper spawning aggregations will be webcast from the Smithsonian this week. The Nassau grouper is considered endangered by the IUCN. Photo by Selina Heppell.

Last Friday, May 15th, America celebrated Endangered Species Day. While very few marine species have technically been declared as endangered, many of the critters that REEF volunteers see while conducting marine life surveys have experienced declines in recent years. REEF programs and data provide much needed information for scientists and resource agencies charged with evaluating the status of such species. A recent example is a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposal to list 5 species of rockfish in the Puget Sound under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The status review was just published on April 22 and REEF data were extensively used in the assessment. This example highlights the value of REEF data as a fisheries-independent data source; such information is critical for those species that are too rare to be targeted for harvest. A copy of the assessment is posted online.

The Nassau grouper, which is the focal species of REEF’s Grouper Moon Project, has been classified as endangered under the IUCN’s Red List. The Grouper Moon Project is a collaborative conservation program between REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment to study one of the last known large Nassau grouper spawning aggregations in the Caribbean. Grouper Moon Project lead scientist, Dr. Brice Semmens, will be presenting the ground-breaking findings of this research during a special one day session to be held in the Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History this Wednesday, May 20th. "Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation" will feature some of the good news coming out of work being conducted in the oceans. Brice’s talk, along with all of the success stories, will be webcast online. The Grouper Moon talk is scheduled in the Coral Reef session, which is from 2-3:25.

Show Your Support For REEF

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REEF members who donate $250 or more during our Fall Campaign will receive this limited edition, signed print of a South Pacific reef by Paul Humann.

As another amazing year draws to a close, we are reaching out to our valued members to contribute financially. REEF is a member-driven organization that is focused on the conservation of our world's ocean environments. The key to our 20-year success story is a close partnership between our volunteers, contributors, and staff, who share both an affinity for marine wildlife and a commitment to its sustainability. As never before, we are counting on your tax-deductible financial support, which is the cornerstone of our grass-roots efforts to protect the marine environment. Watch your mail for REEF's Fall fundraising drive, or better yet, donate today using our secure online form.

We are lucky once more that REEF co-founder and marine life photographer, Paul Humann, has donated a special signed print as a premium gift for REEF members who contribute $250 or more. This year's print features a beautiful South Pacific reef scene, illustrating a diversity of colorful coral and tropical fish.

Since its inception, REEF’s accomplishments have been powered by volunteers and donations from members like you. We attribute our longevity to service, ethics, innovation, and the wise use of your funding. We are proud to maintain one of the lowest administrative to program cost ratios in the non-profit sector. Yet we are still able to increase our services and support long-term projects, such as:

  • The Volunteer Survey Project;
  • The Grouper Moon Project, and;
  • The Lionfish Invasion Research Program
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    We hope that we can count on your support during our Fall fundraising drive. We are tightening our belts and doubling our efforts to keep our long tradition of service alive during these challenging financial times. Please consider REEF’s unique environmental mission, our 20-year track record of service and growth, the power of volunteers, and our sterling reputation as a can-do, no-nonsense organization that appreciates, respects, and gets the most out of your contributions. Thank you for considering a gift of any size, we truly appreciate your support and your belief in our mission. Donate today using our secure online form - https://www.REEF.org/contribute.

    New Species of Goby Discovered, REEF Data Support the Research

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    A new species discovered in Utila - the Redcheek Goby. Photo by Keri Wilk/ReefNet.
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    Greenbanded Goby, a close relative of the new species. Photo by Jim Burke.
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    The Redcheek Goby sports an extra red stripe on it's face, and is currently only known from Utila. Photo by Paul Humann.
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    Range of the Greenbanded Goby group in the Western Atlantic. Greenbanded Goby superspecies complex (red), Redcheek Goby (purple), Panamanian Greenbanded Goby (yellow). Shading represents species range based on REEF survey data sightings and other sources.

    Long-time REEF supporters, Les and Keri Wilk of ReefNet, recently discovered and photographed a distinctively marked population of the Greenbanded Goby, Elacatinus multifasciatus, on the island of Utila, Honduras. The population was distinguished by a prominent red stripe across the cheek that is not found on other populations of Greenbanded Gobies, as well as more numerous green bars on the body. The Wilks contacted Dr. Benjamin Victor (coralreeffish.com), a reef fish taxonomic expert, who conducted a regional genetic comparison of Greenbanded Gobies to evaluate hidden diversity within this colorful reef fish. As part of the study, the REEF database was used to document the current geographic range of the species. Dr. Victor's results identified the unique looking fish to be a separate species that is now called the Redcheek Goby (E. rubrigenis). He also discovered that, based on genetic results, Greenbanded Goby along coastal Panama, despite looking just like others in the species complex (i.e. a cryptic species, distinguished mainly by differing DNA sequences), are a distinct species that will now be called Panamanian Greenbanded Goby (E. panamensis). The study was published last month in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation.

    The new species, the Redcheek Goby, replaces the Greenbanded Goby on the island of Utila and has not been sighted at any other location, potentially one of the smallest ranges reported for a Caribbean reef fish. With few exceptions, coral reef fishes have pelagic larvae that spend weeks to months developing in off-reef waters. As a result of this high dispersal ability, most Western Atlantic reef fish species have geographic ranges throughout the Caribbean Sea and adjacent areas. Endemic marine species (those only found in a given region or location and nowhere else in the world) are generally uncommon in the western Atlantic region. Furthermore, many of these widespread species show little, if any, variation in their genetic patterns between areas, particularly within the bounds of the Caribbean Sea with its many stepping-stone islands. Nevertheless, some groups of fishes, presumably those with more-restricted larval dispersal and strong local selection, show interesting patterns of endemism, genetic structure, and cryptic speciation within the region, for example among the Elacatinus cleaning gobies (e.g. Sharknose, Cleaning, Neon, Yellowline, etc.). Those reef fish taxa that contain cryptic species can provide valuable insights into the processes of speciation and the biogeographic history of the region, but also seriously challenge the traditional species concept. The results of Benjamin Victor's study highlight these challenges.

    REEF is proud to be able to contribute to scientific studies such as this one. We are also thrilled that fishwatching by amateur non-scientists like our Fish Survey Project volunteers has been elevated beyond just a hobby, and is increasing the state of knowledge about reef fish diversity. The full citation of the publication is: Victor, B.C. 2010. The Redcheek Paradox: the mismatch between genetic and phenotypic divergence among deeply divided mtDNA lineages in a coral-reef goby, with the description of two new cryptic species from the Caribbean Sea. The Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, Vol 3. It is freely available online here. To find out more about this and other scientific publications that have featured REEF data, visit our Publications page here.

    Reports from the Field: October 2010

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    Field Surveys – Eighteen REEF members joined Drs. Christy and Brice Semmens earlier this month on a Field Survey to the Sea of Cortez aboard the Rocio del Mar live-aboard. The team conducted over 300 surveys in 20 locations around the Midriff Islands, many of which were new to the REEF database. It was a great trip, with 130 species of fish found, beautiful topside scenery, and pods of sperm and pilot whales! Find out more about REEF Trips.

    Lionfish Derby – The second of three lionfish round-ups in the Florida Keys was held last week off Marathon (FL). During this one-day event, several teams participated to collect this voracious predator off local reefs. The third derby is scheduled for November 13 in Key West. Find out more about REEF’s Lionfish Program.

    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.

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub