Bigger Than Ever – Lionfish Research Continues

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Lad Akins and Andy Dehart capture a lionfish during a recent REEF Lionfish Research Project. The lionfish was measured, tagged, and released. A team subsequently recaptured the lionfish to learn more about site fidelity and growth in this species.
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A juvenile lionfish recently found in Little Cayman by Dottie Benjamin, a local divemaster and avid REEF surveyor. REEF's program serves as an early warning program for the arrival of exotic species. Photo by Matt Lewis.
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REEF volunteers give the lionfish sign at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas in May

The recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish into Atlantic waters has been causing great concern among researchers, marine park and fisheries managers, and divers. REEF, in partnership with Bahamian dive operators Stuart Cove and Bruce Purdy, NOAA, the United States Geological Service (USGS), the National Aquarium in Washington DC, the Bahamian Government and university groups, has spearheaded the field research for this rapidly expanding problem. As part of REEF’s Lionfish Research Program, over the last two years REEF has coordinated 12 research projects that have involved over 175 REEF volunteers. This research has generated a wealth of in-situ observations and over 1,000 lionfish specimens, which have led to great advances in the understanding of the biology and potential impacts of this most unwanted invader.

REEF’s most recent field project at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas in May 2008, involving over 20 volunteers and researchers, found that the problem continues to get worse. The team gathered data on nearly 200 specimens of lionfish to determine relative abundance, size increases, reproductive status, growth rates, predator prey relationships and movement.  Findings included:

Lionfish continue to grow in size: Tagging data show growth rates exceeding 190mm/year, far larger than necessary to reach sexual maturity.

Site Fidelity: All 12 previously-tagged specimens that have been recaptured indicate strong site fidelity even after 6 months.

Prey: Lionfish continue to amaze us during stomach content studies. The recent effort turned up new records including two entire spotted goatfish, a large brown chromis, a small reef octopus, and even a small mollusk in its shell. Lionfishare eating nearly anything that will fit into their mouths.

Reproduction: Lionfish reproduction occurs throughout the year – many gravid females and a small recently settled juveniles have been found.

REEF’s future fieldwork will concentrate on lionfish movement, trap design, habitat preference, and local control measures. Our next project is scheduled to take place at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas in Nassau from September 14-20. If you would like to help with our ongoing work please consider joining us as a field volunteer and/or making a contribution to REEF’s Exotic Species Program.

For more information on REEF’s Exotic Species Program, to volunteer on a future research project or to discuss funding opportunities, contact REEF Director of Special Projects, Lad Akins, Lad@reef.org.

REEF News Tidbits for October

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  • Just added to the REEF Online Store -- Columbia Sportswear Bonehead Long Sleeve REEF Shirts. These Performance Fishing Gear (PFG) long sleeve shirts provide protection from the sun and chilly waterfront breezes, with the flexibility to roll up your sleeves making it the perfect REEF Fish Survey attire. They are generously cut, 100% cotton, and discretely but proudly let the world know that you support REEF and Diving that Counts! Also recently added to the online REEF store -- Limited Edition Lionfish Print by Rogest and stylish REEF caps.
  • The Cozumel REEF Trip in December, which has been sold out for almost a year, just had 3 spaces open up. These trips are led by REEF Expert and Cozumel Naturalist, Sheryl Shea, and are extremely popular. Please give us a call for more information and to reserve your space 305-852-0030.
  • A special thanks to all the REEF members who volunteered at our DEMA booth -- Park Chapman, Andy Dehart, Chris Flook, Heather George, Stephanie Green and Sue Thompson, and to Evelyn McGlone and Janet Bartnicki for holding down the fort at REEF HQ. We couldn't have done it without you!
  • Please remember to support REEF during our Fall Fundraising campaign.
  • REEF Team Surveys Vandenberg Sinking Site

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    REEF Advanced Assessment Team members who were part of the team that conducted the pre-deployment monitoring for the Vandenberg.
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    The Vandenberg, just prior to being sunk off Key West as the second largest artificial reef in the world, in May 2009. Photo courtesy of © Stephen Frink.

    The USS Hoyt Vandenberg is the most recent ship to be placed as an artificial reef in the waters off Key West, Florida. The ship was sunk on May 27, 2009, but three weeks prior to the sinking the REEF team was in action conducting surveys of the sinking site and 7 other adjacent sites for comparison. The data will be used by the State of Florida to document fish recruitment onto the wreck and response of nearby reef sites to the new structure. In addition to regular REEF fish surveys, the team is also gathering important fish biomass data at two sites and recording any observations of non-native titan acorn barnacles, orange cup corals or non-native fish including lionfish.

    The pre-deployment surveys at the sinking site did not document any fish present at the sandy bottom site though one barracuda was seen swimming through the area shortly after. Combined data from the 7 reference sites documented 159 species including rare sightings of pugjaw wormfish and cherubfish (rare for the Keys). The summary of data can be found here.

    REEF will continue regular monitoring of the Vandenberg and reference sites through next summer, with a final report due by the end of 2010. A huge thank you to all of the REEF experts joining in on the effort including Rob McCall, Tracy Harris, Dave Grenda, Brenda Hitt, Jamie Giganti, Lisa Canty and Pat Zuloaga.

    News Tidbits

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  • Check Out the REEF Store! It's your one stop shop for all of your REEF Gear, ID Books and REEF Survey Supplies. Just added in the REEF Gear section -- new colors of the REEF Hat.
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  • Do you eBay? If you buy or sell on eBay, here's an easy way to support REEF as part of Giving Works. Sellers chose to donate 10-100% of the proceeds. Go to the REEF Profile page for Giving Works. From there you can check out current auction items from sellers who have chosen REEF to receive part or all of their proceeds and you can list your own auctions. Thanks to Carlton A. for recently supporting REEF this way!
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  • New Lionfish Documentary. Miami filmmaker Alicia Zaitsu has recently put together a short documentary on the lionfish in South Florida including the first capture of a lionfish in Biscayne National Park. The film is undergoing additional editing into both a shorter and longer version for distribution, but for now, the current version is available for public viewing on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYPcnQW_YZs
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  • Become a Fan of REEF on Facebook. The REEF Facebook Page gives you the latest information about REEF's programs and events, our marine conservation work, and see exclusive content and stories. It's also a great place for our members to post pictures, fish stories and whatever is on their mind.
  • Doubling Our Impact, and Doubling Your Donations

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    Your donation will help support REEF's important marine conservation programs, including the Grouper Moon Project.

    Earlier this month, on World Oceans Day, we kicked off REEF's Summer Fundraising Campaign with a goal of raising $60,000 by July 31. Thanks to the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, who has generously offered to match your donations, we are over one-third of the way to our goal with $10,345 donated and matched so far. To all of our members who have already donated, we extend our sincere gratitude. If you haven't yet had a chance, please contribute today. You can double your donation in the upcoming month by contributing online, https://www.REEF.org/contribute, through our secure web form. Or you can print the donation form and mail or fax your donation, or call our staff at REEF headquarters (305-852-0030).

    Your donation will help support REEF services, which are increasingly in high demand. As the lionfish invasion continues to grow, so does our research and response. Legislation to ensure long-term protections of Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations are set to expire in 2011. And after the devastation in the Gulf, REEF’s Volunteer Fish Survey Program data can be invaluable in evaluating the impact of the oil spill to fish populations. Twenty years of support from members like you has made it possible for REEF to build and maintain this valuable history of fish populations throughout our program regions. We could not do this vitally important work without you. We are doubling our efforts now, and we hope you will double your contribution this summer.

    REEF Data Document Declines in Yellow Stingray

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    The decline in yellow stingray sightings in the Florida Keys beteween 1994 and 2007. Source: Ward-Paige, et al. Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2010.

    World-wide declines in shark and ray populations have prompted the need for a better understanding of their patterns of distribution and abundance. While much of the focus has been on the larger species of sharks, little attention had been paid to the most frequently sighted elasmobranch species in the greater-Caribbean, the yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis). Despite being relatively common and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, little was known about the status of this species. Unfortunately, it has been quietly declining. Dr. Christine Ward-Paige and her colleagues at Dalhousie University worked with REEF's Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, to examine the status of yellow stingray. The results of this study were recently published in the scientific journal, Environmental Biology of Fishes. Click here to read the paper.

    The study used 83,940 surveys collected by REEF surveyors in the western Atlantic. In total, yellow stingrays were observed on 5,658 surveys (6.7% sighting frequency) with the highest occurrence in the regions surrounding Cuba. Overall, sighting frequency declined from 20.5% in 1994 to 4.7% in 2007. However, these trends were not consistent in all regions. The strongest decline occurred in the Florida Keys, the most sampled region, where trends were similar among all areas, habitats and depths. Possible explanations for these changes include habitat degradation, exploitation (this species is collected for medical research and the aquarium trade), and changes in trophic interactions. The results of the study suggest large-scale changes in yellow stingray abundance that have been unnoticed by the scientific community. This study also highlights the value of non-scientific divers for collecting data that can be used to understand population trends of otherwise poorly studied species.

    To see this and other scientific papers that have been published using REEF data, check out the Publications page on the REEF.org website here.

    Watch an Online Screening of Alien Invaders Tomorrow Night - June 2nd

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    Changing Seas, an original production of Miami’s public television station WPBT2, will host a live online screening event of Alien Invaders, the series’ latest episode focusing on the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic. Alien Invaders will be screened live on the Changing Seas website (www.changingseas.tv/webcast) on Thursday, June 2nd at 7:30 p.m. EST. During the screening, dive enthusiasts will have the opportunity to join an online chat with producers and the experts featured in the program. REEF's Lad Akins and researcher Stephanie Green will be be online to answer questions live during the event.

    News Flash Items

    • A great last minute opportunity to join renowned photographer and REEF co-founder, Paul Humann, for a week of fish watching and learning. Two spaces (one cabana) just opened up on each week of his upcoming trip to the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean Sea off Panama, June 9-16 and June 16-23, 2012. You will stay in one of these beautiful over-water bungalows. Grab a space before it's too late. Email or call our friends at Caradonna today. 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), REEF@caradonna.com. There are also a few spaces left on the following REEF Trips - Dominica Lionfish trip with Lad Akins (July 14-21), San Salvador Bahamas with Paul Humann (July 28-Aug 4), Sea of Cortez with Christy and Brice Semmens (Sept 22-29), Bermuda with Ned and Anna DeLoach (Oct 6-13), British Virgin Islands with Heather George (Nov 11-17). Visit the REEF Trips page to find out more. 
    • Check out the online REEF Store -- we recently added new underwater guide books for the Pacific coast and new wearable REEF gear. 
    • Don't miss the upcoming Fishinars! Ned DeLoach will discuss all you want to know about the sex life of fish May 9th. Other upcoming sessions include Fish ID for California, the Northeast US, West Coast Sculpins, and Caribbean Wrasse. These free sessions are great fishy-fun from the comfort of your own home. No specialized software needed, just an internet connection. 
    • Want to stay updated with all the latest news, pictures, and updates from REEF and our friends? Then become a fan of our REEF Facebook Page. Even if you are not on Facebook, anyone can view the page.

    Upcoming Webinars Include California Fish & Inverts, Caribbean Damsels, and More!

    Not sure which Caribbean damselfish this is? Then attend the "Those Darn Damsels" Fishinar next month! Photo by Paul Humann.

    Our Webinar team is at it again! New Fishinars continue to be added, and upcoming sessions include a California Critters series, plus several on Caribbean fish families (including those pesky Damsels)! Check out the Webinar Training page (www.REEF.org/resources/webinars) for the most up-to-date listing. These popular online training sessions provide fishie fun in the comfort of your own home. Fishinars are free, and open to all REEF members. You need to register for each session you want to attend. No special software is required, just a web browser. Upcoming sessions include:

    California Fish ID Part One and Two - Nov 27, Nov 29

    Caribbean Hit Parade! Top 25 Fish - Dec 6

    Those Darn Damsels! Top 12 of the Greater Caribbean - Jan 17

    California Invertebrate ID Part One and Two - Feb 6, Feb 7

    Hamlets: To Be or Not to Be (Counted, that is) - Feb 12

    Triggers and Files: The ID Tools of the Trade - Mar 21

    Check out the Fishinar page for more details and to register for each session.

    The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Carl Gwinn

    Carl posing with his pumpkin at the yearly pumpkin carving contest of the Paradise Dive club.
    Carl at his day job. day job, standing in front of the RadioAstron spacecraft in Russia, now in orbit, and going out to nearly the distance of the moon every 9 days.
    A xanthic-melanthic gopher rockfish that Carl found in the Channel Islands!
    The resulting "Ocot-tattoo" after his encounter with a Giant Pacific Octopus.

    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 Carl Gwinn, a REEF surveyor in California. Carl joined REEF in 2001 and has conducted 328 surveys. He is a member of the Pacific Advanced Assessment Team. Here's what he had to say about REEF:

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

    Not long after we started to dive in California, my wife and I saw an advertisement for a fish ID seminar and survey trip out of Santa Barbara. We couldn’t make the trip, but we attended the seminar, learned quite a bit about fish, and started doing surveys. As we dived more, we became more engaged and more serious about it. We went on some trips and filled out quite a few surveys. Lately, I’ve had to slack off, because of work responsibilities, but I’m hoping to do more in the future.

    What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

    Being a citizen scientist! I enjoy doing the dive, but it’s also making a contribution to human knowledge. So, the experiences of the dive add a little something to human knowledge, rather than being merely for my own entertainment. I also think REEF does great work in getting people to experience, appreciate, and learn about the ocean.

    If you had to explain REEF to a friend in a couple of sentences, what would you tell them?

    Dive for science! Identify and count fish while enjoying your dive.

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

    Of course the data are important. But I think that the education aspect is also really important. People appreciate more what they understand. Counting fish can help them to realize how complicated and interconnected the ocean is. It’s also vulnerable, but has tremendous regenerative capacity. That’s something that surveyors can experience directly, after gaining a bit of knowledge.

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

    My favorite place to dive is probably Refugio State Beach, not far from my house. I’ve done over 200 dives there. I like it because it’s easy to get in and out, and is relatively well sheltered from the swell. Once you get in it has a wide variety of different habitats in a small area. You can really see how the populations of fish and invertebrates change, both with the seasons and in ways that never repeat. The beach there tends to get overcrowded, but usually once you get offshore it is pretty empty.

    What is the most fascinating fish (or invertebrate) encounter you’ve experienced?

    Certainly my most memorable encounter was being attacked by a Giant Pacific Octopus. He tore off my mask and my regulator, and tried to yank off my hood. I was diving in the Olympic Marine Sanctuary in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on a REEF survey trip. I slammed my regulator back in, and surfaced from 50 feet depth with the octopus on my head. Its suckers left hickeys all over my face, which lasted about 10 days! The photo has become widely circulated on the internet! Although my dive buddy had a camera, he was enjoying a crevice full of sculpins too much to notice the encounter: my only regret is that he didn’t get a series of photos.

    What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

    Probably my favorite kind of fish is the rockfish. There are lots of different species, and sometimes they seem to blend into one another, so ID can be a challenge. They exhibit some interesting types of behavior, sometimes species-specific. I love to see the schools of juvenile and smaller rockfish: they have bright, clear markings and seem curious. They change from year to year, as the different species have more or less success in recruitment. And, they are hope for the future.

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

    Jump in. I remember taking a boat trip to the Naples Seamount and Platform Holly. The visibility started at 5 feet and got worse with each dive, and the surge was over 3 feet at depth. On the way back to the harbor we stopped at the Goleta sewer pipeline, which runs from shore to a few of miles out to sea, and has some good fish in the rocks covering the pipeline. I decided to skip the dive, I’d had enough. My nap was interrupted by a lot of shouting up on deck. A gray whale had swum up to a few of the divers, on the bottom, and inspected them with its enormous eye. I wish I’d seen that! So, jump in.

    What is your most memorable fish find and why? Is there a fish (or marine invertebrate) you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

    I remember spotting an unusual rockfish on a dive off Santa Cruz Island: later identified as a xanthic-melanthic gopher rockfish (or black-and-yellow rockfish) south of Santa Rosa Island. It was nearly completely yellow. It was probably the most unusual fish I have seen: essentially a mutant. I managed to get a photo. What haven’t I seen yet? I haven’t yet managed to spot many of the local fish, some common: an embarrassing lapse! I’d like to see more and different kinds of sharks, spot some turtles (they show up around here occasionally), watch a few different kinds of whales and dolphins swim by underwater. I would love to see a white abalone underwater: they are extremely rare.

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