Putting It To Work: New Publication from the Grouper Moon Project

Approximately 5,000 Nassau Grouper gather, temporarily, on the west end of Little Cayman each winter. Photo by Paul Humann.

A new scientific paper that features research from REEF's Grouper Moon Project, "Hot Moments in Spawning Aggregations", was recently published in the journal, Coral Reefs. The study looked at the impact of a Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation in creating biogeochemical "hot moments", which occur when a temporary increase in one or more limiting nutrients results in elevated rates of biogeochemical reactions. In this case, the limited nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus. And the temporary increase is from the large amount of grouper excrement that results when approximately 5,000 Nassau Grouper gather in a small area for 10 days during the spawning season, as happens around winter full moons on Little Cayman. The authors estimated the rate of nutrients supplied by the Nassau Grouper at the Little Cayman aggregation site, and found that the temporary surge in the nutrient supply rate was larger than nearly all other published sources of nutrients on coral reefs, an ecosystem that is typically a food and nutrient desert. Beyond the loss of this iconic species in the Caribbean, the significant decline in Nassau Grouper and their spawning aggregations over the last few decades has likely had large consequences on the productivity of the reefs that historically hosted spawning aggregations. To read the full paper, click here. And to see all of the scientific papers that have included REEF's data and programs, visit our Publications page.

A Few Spaces Remain on 2015 REEF Trips - Fiji, Curacao, Catalina, and St. Lucia

Our 2015 REEF Trips are off to a great start, with fun, successful trips to Kona and Grand Cayman so far. Most of the remaining trips are sold out, but a few spaces remain. We would love to have you join us in Fiji (May 2-12, one male space left), Curacao (Aug 22 - 29, one male space left), Catalina Island (Nov 1 - 5, 4 spaces left), or St. Lucia (Dec 5-12, 6 spaces left). For trips that are sold out, we are happy to add your name on a wait list, as sometimes traveler's plans do change. We are working hard to get the 2016 trips organized. Our Philippines trip next April is already half full, so act soon on this one if you are interested. The rest of the 2016 schedule will be ready soon. To find out details on all of these trips, visit www.REEF.org/trips.

New Items Added to REEF Store

If you haven't checked out REEF's online store recently, now is a perfect time to get a jump on your holiday shopping! We have added several new items, including a newly-designed REEF shirt that features our logo with all your favorite ocean creatures intertwined and a brand new Nudibranchs of the Indo-Pacific book. Visit www.REEF.org/store to check out these items and more.

Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Decline in Sunflower Stars and Resulting Impacts in the Ecosystem

Sunflower Star and Green Sea Urchin abundance, as recorded in REEF surveys from January 2010 to November 2014 in Washington and British Columbia (n = 1568 surveys).

Between 2013 and 2015, the US Pacific Northwest and western Canada experienced a mass mortality of sea stars. The Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), a previously abundant predator, began to show signs of a wasting syndrome in early September 2013, and dense aggregations disappeared from many sites in a matter of weeks. REEF surveyors certainly noticed, and the decline was reflected in the REEF database. The authors of a new publication just out in the journal PeerJ used the REEF database to document the decline at a regional scale. In addition to the dramatic decline in Sunflower Stars, they found a four-fold increase in the number of Green Sea Urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis). The sea urchin increase also resulted in declines in kelp canopy coverage. This type of ecological change, where a change in one species impacts many others, is known as a trophic cascade. Because of the long-term and wide-spread nature of the REEF survey program, our data have proven invaluable in documenting the impacts of the seastar wasting disease. The study was conducted by Jessica Schultz, Ryan Cloutier, and Isabelle M. Côté from Simon Fraser University and the Vancouver Aquarium. Visit www.REEF.org/db/publications to see this and all of the 60+ scientific publications that have included REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project data.

Summer Lionfish Derby Series a Success in 2016

REEF Lionfish staff, Emily Stokes, measuring a lionfish at a derby this summer. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
A group of college students who created a Lionfish Derby team. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
Local chefs prepare lionfish to be served at a REEF Derby.

This summer seemed to fly by, and along with it went REEF’s 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series! It was an exciting summer full of “firsts” for the derby program. We added a fourth derby to the series, which we hosted in Sarasota in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. We also hosted our first Lionfish Culinary Competition in conjunction with the Palm Beach County Lionfish Derby, held at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, with support from the NUISANCE Group and Chef Chris Sherrill. The Sarasota and Palm Beach County derbies were full weekend events rather than single day removals, which gave competitors more time to get to sites that aren’t fished as often and to maximize the amount of lionfish removed. To top it all off, the Fort Lauderdale Derby teams brought in an astounding 1,250 lionfish in a single day! In all, the teams removed 2,426 lionfish during the REEF Lionfish Derbies in 2016. A whopping 18,560 lionfish have been removed in all REEF Derbies since 2009. Way to go teams. More stats below.

2016 Summer Series Derby Stats

Total Lionfish Removed:

Sarasota (July 9th & 10th) = 429

Fort Lauderdale (July 16th) = 1,250

Palm Beach County (August 13th & 14th) = 337

Upper Keys (September 10th) = 323

Total Lionfish Removed During 2016 Derby Series = 2,426

Total Lionfish Removed from ALL REEF Derbies (since 2009) = 18,560

Largest Lionfish Caught = 427 mm (~16.8 inches)

Smallest Lionfish Caught = 24 mm (~.94 inches)

Thank you to all of our 2016 Derby sponsors who made this series possible, including Diver’s Direct, Evolve Diving, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries, the Florida State Park Service, Ocean Reef Conservation Commission, and ZooKeeper! The 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series was funded in part by a grant awarded from Mote Marine Laboratory’s Protect Our Reefs Grants Program, which is funded by proceeds from the sale of the Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate. To learn more, visit www.mote.org/4reef.

The Faces of REEF: Deb Hebblewhite

Deb working hard on the Micronesia REEF Trip in 2016.
Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray. Photo courtesy WikiCommons, by Jens Petersen.

REEF members are at the heart of our marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Deb Hebblewhite, a REEF member since 1999. Deb lives in Denver, Colorado. She has conducted 129 surveys and has participated in several REEF Field Survey Trips. Here's what Deb had to say about REEF:

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

I was in Cozumel in the 90’s when I first discovered a copy of Paul and Ned’s early Caribbean Fish ID book. I was so very excited to be able to start identifying the creatures I was seeing underwater. It definitely made SCUBA so much more enjoyable for me. I don’t remember how I found out about it but my first REEF trip was an intro to surveying trip led by Lad in Key Largo in August of 2002. The main reason I signed up for that trip was the advertised chance to see the Coral Spawn. We ventured out late one night and the corals waited until we were almost out of bottom time before they finally started popping. It was a new and magical experience for my dive buddy and I. I hope to have the chance to see that again one day.

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

As cool as the Coral Spawn was, my favorite experience on a REEF trip came in the Sea of Cortez in 2008. In the middle of the afternoon we came upon a huge bait ball. I don’t recall the type of fish but this bait ball was larger than anything I had ever seen. It remained in the same location for quite awhile so we were able to dive it twice. On the second dive I spent a good amount of time just sitting on the bottom looking up in awe at the amazing, swirling tangle of life above me.

Is there a fish you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

Surprisingly there were no large fish feeding on that bait ball I saw in the Sea of Cortez. The one fish I would really like to see while diving is any type of billfish. There is something about their speed and power that I find fascinating. I’m going back to the Sea of Cortez with REEF in August so maybe there will be another bait ball and I will get my chance to eye that billfish.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

I love all kinds of rays, especially Manta Rays, mainly for their grace moving through the water. When I dove the Red Sea I encountered Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and they are some of the most memorable animals for me. They are just so pretty and colorful.

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

I live in Colorado so don’t do much diving locally. I don’t really have an ultimate favorite place. I enjoy traveling to new destinations but since I’ve been to Dominica three times I would have to say it’s my favorite Caribbean location. Though I get a good amount of vacation time I have several other interests that I travel for so some years I only go on one dive trip. However, 2016 was unusual for me as I went to Dominica in February and then participated in two big firsts for REEF; the first REEF trip to Cuba and the first REEF trip to Micronesia.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Participating in REEF and completing REEF surveys increases my enjoyment of SCUBA exponentially, and gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose. There are so many detrimental things happening to our oceans today. Adding to the REEF database by submitting surveys makes me feel like I’m doing some small part to help the underwater world I love. In the process I’ve learned so many fascinating things about fish and other sea creatures. It’s fun too to do something that’s a little bit off mainstream. The folks in my office think it’s fun to tell people that “Debbie is out counting fish” when I’m away on a REEF Trip. I feel privileged to be a REEF member and to have the opportunity to dive with so many amazing people who truly care about our seas. I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who experience it first hand to be the ambassadors for the oceans. Sharing what we know with those who never get the chance to experience that magical underwater world is an important way to engage people in the fight to protect our oceans.

Putting it to Work: New Publication from the Grouper Moon Project

Diver-based fish length surveys conducted by REEF volunteers and Grouper Moon scientists were used in the study published earlier this year. Photo by Phil Bush.

We are proud to share the latest publication to result from REEF's programs - the paper, titled "Hydroacoustics for the discovery and quantification of Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) spawning aggregations" was published in the scientific journal Coral Reefs earlier this year. The Grouper Moon Project is always looking for new and/or better ways of accurately estimating the number of spawning Nassau Grouper at the aggregation sites being monitored. In 2014, we tested the use of a split-beam echosounder as a tool for surveying the abundance and size of fish at the aggregation site; the results of the study are detailed in this peer-reviewed paper. We found that the echosounder performs fairly well at providing an index of abundance, although the absolute accuracy of the method was not sufficient to replace other survey methods (e.g. mark and recapture monitoring). After calibrating the method with diver-based fish length surveys, the tool was able to accurately capture estimates of aggregating fish sizes. Surveys on all 3 islands (Little Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Grand Cayman) showed that the average size of Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman was significantly larger than on both Brac and Grand. Furthermore, the sizes of Nassau Grouper on Brac and Grand were not significantly different. Based on this study, the echosounder is a potentially useful tool for surveying aggregations, but is likely best used to complement more intensive diver-based survey methods.

Grouper Moon researchers, Dr. Brice Semmens and Dr. Scott Heppell, along with our colleague from Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Croy McCoy, were co-authors on the paper. You can find a link to this paper, along with information on all publications that have resulted from REEF's programs can be found at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

New Learning Tool! REEF Launches Reef Fish Identification Home Study Course

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Reef Fish Identification DVD Home Study Course for Sale!

By popular demand, REEF has adapted its classrrom course into a home study DVD course package for beginning "fishwatchers" in the Caribbean, Florida and Bahamas. Click here to read the press release; click here to purchase the DVD course. This would make an ideal holiday gift for your favorite fishwatcher!

March 2008 Field Survey Update

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Male Quillfin Blenny. Photo by Paul Humann
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Female Quillfin Blenny. Photo by Paul Humann
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REEF survey diver

Only one space is open for the upcoming Turks and Caicos live-aboard Field Survey, April 19-26th aboard the Aggressor II. We have an ecclectic, well-rounded group of surveyors committed to making this a special trip. Time is running out to join. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Tami at Travel for You (1-888-363-3345) or Joe Cavanaugh at 305-852-0030.

Spaces are also available for the Paul Humann Discovery Tour this summer in Key Largo scheduled June 21-28, 2008.  This Field Survey provides a great opportunity for new and seasoned surveyors to interact with renowned marine life author, Paul Humann, and learn from his many years experience, photographing and surveying marine creatures worldwide.  Horizon Divers is the dive shop for this trip and also a REEF Field Station. Horizon Divers has worked with REEF on a number of projects over the past several years.  Your time on the Discovery Tour will be split between class-work with Paul Humann, learning fish and invertebrate species identification and behavior, and diving multiple sites in Key Largo.  Paul will review fish and invertebrate sightings from the dives and incorporate what you are seeing into his classes.  Summer diving in the Keys cannot be beat and all the dives will be less than 60 feet depth.  There will be opportunities for a night dive and ample time for touring many of the local attractions in the Keys. 

 If you are interested in Paul's Discovery Tour, please phone Dan Dawson at Horizon Divers (305) 453-3535 (email: info@horizondivers.com), or phone Joe Cavanaugh at (305) 852-0030 (joe@reef.org).

Capacity Building in the Pacific Northwest

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Sixty REEF surveyors from the Puget Sound region attended the debut of advanced fish identification training at the Seattle Aquarium. Photo by Claude Nichols.
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The Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker is one of the fishes included in the new PNW Advanced Fish Identification course. Photo by Tom Nicodemus.
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Members of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team in the Pacific Northwest get ready for a survey dive with Pacific Adventures. Photo by Don Coleman.

Thanks to funding from The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF) and a lot of hard work and coordination by regional REEF instructor, Janna Nichols, the Pacific Northwest is REEF's fastest growing region. The goals of the TRFF project were to enlist new divers into the REEF Volunteer Survey Project and provide incentive for existing surveyors to stay involved and increase their experience level. Between 1998 when REEF was launched in the Pacific Northwest and the beginning of the training program funded by TRFF, 4,101 surveys had been conducted in Washington State. During the 12 months of the project, the number of surveys increased an incredible 25% as a result of the funded project activities. 

Eighty-three volunteers conducted these 1,065 surveys; 40 of the surveyors were new to the REEF Volunteer Survey Project (a total of 398 volunteers have conducted surveys in Washington since 1998). Many of these new volunteers have already become quite active and as a result of the project, 98 REEF surveyors advanced at least one level in their survey experience rating (including 10 new Expert rated surveyors!). This surge of involved and invested volunteers is invaluable to REEF capacity building efforts in the Pacific Northwest region. Another outcome of the TRFF project was the development of an advanced fish identification course for the Pacific Northwest. The course was debuted to a crowd of sixty divers at the Seattle Aquarium in May and will be available through the REEF online store later this month.

The TRFF project highlighted the importance of providing continued education for our members and opportunities for organized surveying. While the TRFF project has come to an end, REEF recently secured a grant from the Seattle Biotech Legacy Foundation (SBLF) to continue these training opportunities. The SBLF project is also supporting REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, to attend the annual Ecological Society of America conference later this summer to present a talk on the importance of citizen science for conservation and management applications.

To find out more about REEF activities in the Pacific Northwest, visit the PNW Critter Watchers webpage

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub