Grouper Moon 2013 - Protecting a Caribbean Icon

A lone Nassau Grouper in front of 4,000 others at the spawning aggregation site on Little Cayman. Photo by Josh Stewart.
Cayman Prep student showing off her Nassau Grouper drawing, one of several activities through the Grouper Education Program.
Christy and Brice doing a live-video feed from the spawning aggregation to classrooms. Students ask Brice questions in real time and get to virtually dive on the site! Photo by Josh Stewart.

REEF scientists and volunteers just wrapped up another season of the Grouper Moon Project, a collaborative research effort with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDOE). Our research focuses on Little Cayman, which has one of the largest (and one of just a few) known spawning aggregations of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean. Over 4,000 grouper amass in one location for 7-10 days following winter full moons. Since 2002, REEF and our partners at CIDOE, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Oregon State University have used a variety of research techniques from diver surveys to state-of-the-art technology to study this amazing natural phenomenon. The research has yielded ground-breaking results that have led to improved conservation for the species in the Cayman Islands. 2013 was a very exiting year - we continued to document increases in the number of fish at the site and there were many "teenagers" (6-8 year olds, coming to spawn for the first time). The number of spawning bursts and the number of nights spawning occured has increased. Watch this short video to see the action. We continued our education efforts. With support from the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, we were able to expand the program to more classrooms at Cayman Prep and High School on Grand Cayman and initiated the program at Spot Bay Primary School on Cayman Brac. The Grouper Education Project introduces children to the ecological, economic, and cultural role that Nassau Grouper have in the Cayman Islands and wider Caribbean. An integrated marine science curriculum has been developed with a focus on two age groups (Grade 4 and Grade 11), that includes a series of classroom lessons and live from the field web sessions, including a live-feed from 80 feet on the aggregation. Seattle-based educator, Todd Bohannon, leads up this effort.

To learn more about the Grouper Moon Project, watch the Changing Seas episode online here.

To see many more photos, videos, and stories from this year's work, check out the REEF Facebook page here.

Many Thanks! The Grouper Moon Project wouldn’t be possible without the dedication, passion, and financial support from many individuals, Cayman Island businesses, and foundations. It truly takes a village to pull off this conservation research project. In 2013, we especially appreciate the continued generous logistical support provided by Peter Hillenbrand, local lodging and dive operators Reef Divers & Little Cayman Beach Resort and the Southern Cross Club, and Brac Reef Resort. Funding from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund supported field efforts and the Grouper Education Program. LIME Cayman Islands has provided support for the live-video feeds for the Grouper Education Project since 2012. Pegasus Thrusters supported the project in 2013 through the donation of Diver Propulsion Vehicles. It's impossible to list everyone here - please visit the Grouper Moon page to see the full list - http://www.REEF.org//groupermoonproject. If you would like to support this important marine conservation program, please donate to REEF - https://www.reef.org/contribute.

Upcoming Fishinars - Cryptic Fish, Parrotfish, Drums, Rare Cozumel Finds, and Scientific Illustration!

Keep Pointing! Do you see the fish? Photo by Gayle Van Leer.

New Fishinars are always being added. Check out the Webinar Training page (www.REEF.org/fishinars) 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:

Perplexing Parrotfish of the Caribbean - September 10

Keep Pointing! The Top 12 Caribbean Fish You Might Mistake For a Rock - September 26

Lesser Known Fish of Cozumel - October 17

Feel the Beat! The Top 12 Drums & Croakers of the Caribbean - October 29

You do WHAT for a living? Illustrating Fishes - with special guest Val Kells, Scientific Illustrator - November 13

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

Thank You For Your Support

To all our members who donated to the Winter Fundraising Campaign, thank you! REEF depends heavily on individual donors to support our critical marine conservation programs. Together we raised over $97,000 to ensure REEF can continue:

• Expanding and building upon our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, including the recent addition of invertebrate and algae monitoring in our Northeast region. With this new program, all temperate REEF regions now have an invertebrate/algae component. For more information, click here.

• Protecting and monitoring Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands as well as educating the public about the importance of this iconic species. Our team just came back from another successful trip documenting their annual spawning aggregation. For more information, click here.

• Organizing research, training, and removal tactics to battle the lionfish invasion on the East Coast and in the Caribbean. REEF’s recent research shows that strategic local efforts can control lionfish populations and help native fish communities recover. For more information, click here.

In addition to supporting these programs, donations raised by the Winter Fundraising campaign help REEF with the minimal costs required to manage operations. We ensure that every dollar spent is maximized so our projects make a difference for marine conservation around the world.

REEF Surveyors Find Rare Fish on Belize Field Survey

The rarely seen Glover's Reef Toadfish. Photo by Jonathan Lavan.

REEF’s recent Field Survey Trip to Belize was wonderful in many ways, but two events were of particular scientific interest. First, everybody’s favorite, the Sharpnose Pufferfish were spawning so there were literally hundreds seen on every single dive. More importantly, trip leader Jonathan Lavan got a photo of the rarely seen Glover’s Reef Toadfish (Vladichthys gloverensis) down in a sponge. It was thought to only live on Glover’s Reef, Belize, but this animal was photographed on an adjacent reef in Turneffe Atoll so perhaps a common name change is in order. Additionally, Jonathan's photograph is thought to be the only existing shot of the fish in its natural habitat. Great find, Jonathan!

REEF Welcomes New Education Program Manager

We are excited to introduce Ellie Splain, who recently joined REEF staff at headquarters in Key Largo, FL. Ellie will serve as REEF's Education Program Manager. Ellie is no stranger to REEF, as she was a REEF Marine Conservation Intern in the summer of 2013. From a small rural town in Illinois, Ellie attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in FIsh and Wildlife Conservation. Despite growing up landlocked, Ellie has always been drawn to the ocean (and the good weather of South Florida doesn't hurt!). In addition to the REEF internship, during her undergraduate time, she spent time living in the Turks and Caicos Islands and assisted in REEF lionfish research in the Bahamas. After graduation, she moved back to the Florida Keys, where she earned her dive master rating and worked as a field instructor for Marine Resources Development Foundation. Ellie brings with her experience teaching marine ecology and conservation programs in both a classroom and field setting. Her primary focus at REEF will be education, outreach, and capacity building within the REEF Explorers Program, an informal education program offered to visiting groups of all ages. A big fish welcome to Ellie!

Taking a Dive Trip with REEF

REEF Field Survey trips offer a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and are a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their Life List while interacting with fellow ocean enthusiasts. There are still a few spaces remaining on 2015 trips to St. Lucia and Catalina, and we have an exciting lineup of destinations planned for 2016. We hope you will join us. REEF staff, board members, and other marine life experts lead the trips, and each features daily classroom seminars and a full diving schedule. Visit www.REEF.org/trips to see the complete schedule, package details, trip leader bios, and more. To find out more or to book your space, contact us at trips@REEF.org or call 305-588-5869. Book early - REEF trips often sell out! Also, keep an eye on the REEF Trips webpage because we will be adding a few more trips to the 2016 schedule (and beyond) in the coming months.

Putting It To Work: New Study Looks at Spawning Aggregation Population Genetics

The largest known spawning aggregation of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean, found in the Cayman Islands, is the focus of REEF's Grouper Moon Project. Photo by Jim Hellemn.

A new publication in the scientific journal, Coral Reefs, evaluates population genetics of spawning aggregations and the role of juvenile recruitment, from both local and external sources, in sustaining and increasing local aggregations. The study included information from REEF's Grouper Moon Project in the Cayman Islands.

Like many places throughout the Caribbean, Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the US Virgin Islands were overfished until their disappearance in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 2000s, however, Nassau Grouper were found gathering at Grammanik Bank, USVI, a mesophotic coral reef adjacent to one of the extinct aggregation sites, and regulatory protective measures were implemented to protect this fledgling aggregation. The authors of this study addressed two objectives: 1) which factors (local vs. external recruitment) are important in shaping recovery of the USVI spawning aggregations, and 2) the impact of severe past overfishing on the genetic structure of the Gremmanik Bank aggregation. For this second objective, REEF Grouper Moon Project scientists provided genetic samples from individual Nassau Grouper taken from the Little Cayman spawning aggregation, a much larger and less impacted aggregation.

No population structure was detected between the USVI and Cayman spawning aggregations. Additionally, the USVI spawning population showed signs of a genetic bottleneck, typical of greatly reduced populations. These collective results suggest that external recruitment is an important driver of the USVI spawning aggregation recovery. These findings also provide a baseline for future genetic monitoring of the spawning aggregations. The paper, titled "The ups and downs of coral reef fishes: the genetic characteristics of a formerly severely overfished but currently recovering Nassau grouper fish spawning aggregation", was published earlier this month in the March 2016 issue of Coral Reefs. Grouper Moon scientist, Dr. Brice Semmens, was a co-author on the paper. To find out more about this study and to see a list of all publications that have included REEF projects, visit www.REEF.org/db/publications.

Great Annual Fish Count 2016 a Success

Happy surveyors in Virginia participate in the 2016 GAFC. Photo by Susan Sarrett.
A surveyor in Virginia. Photo by Susan Sarrett.

REEF’s 2016 Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) brought together experienced and beginner fish watchers to count fish (and invertebrate) populations. Beginning fish ID classes were held, and then students were able to use their new skills out in the water during organized GAFC events. Participating groups and shops this year were based in several of REEF's regions, including the TWA, SAS, NE, CAL and PNW regions. The biggest GAFC events this year were held in our NE and California regions.

One group of note was a newcomer to the scene -- Lynnhaven Dive Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They are located in the southern part of our Northeast region, and the sites in that area have only had a handful of REEF surveys done up until now. Volunteers Kathy O’Hara and Lindsey Hillier Hotchkiss organized the event and eight women motored 14 miles off the coast to Chesapeake Light Tower, where they conducted surveys. They found Oyster Toadfish, Tautog, Great Barracuda, and Invasive Lionfish, among many other species.

Thanks to ALL groups who participated this year – here’s to continued fish counting year ‘round!

REEF by the Sea - Annual Donor Event Planned for March

Poolside dining at Mango Manor.

To celebrate our sustaining donors and most active volunteer surveyors, we annually host REEF by the Sea. This year's special event will be held this March at Mango Manor, Paul Humann’s home in South Florida. This invitation-only event includes a special day of engaging presentations, socials, meals, and fun. We will celebrate pool-side and enjoy exploring Paul's award winning gardens in between exciting presentations by REEF staff and beautiful slide shows by renowned photographers. We are also organizing an opportunity to dive at the famous Blue Heron Bridge the day before. Donors who give at least $1,000 in a year are included in REEF's Sustainer's Club and are invited to REEF by the Sea and other special events and opportunities. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Martha Klitzkie at martha@REEF.org or 305-852-0030.

REEF Attends Vandenberg Event in Norfolk, VA

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Vandenberg as it was prior to recent preparations for deployment in May of 2008
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Chris Adryan from ReefmakersTM and Joe Cavanaugh at Visit Vandenberg Event

This past Columbus Day, I attended a special event in Norfolk, Virginia, where the ex-USAFS Vandenberg is in its final preparatory stages for deployment next spring, 6 miles off the coast of Key West. REEF will monitor the Vandenberg over the next 5 years in a similar monitoring and assessment project to the just completed 5-year Spiegel Grove assessment in Key Largo. The sinking of the Vandenberg is expected to add millions of dollars in diving/tourist related revenue to Monroe County. The hope is that the Vandenberg will not only add tourist revenue but also will reduce the diving pressure on the natural reefs in the area, “loving our reefs to death.”

REEF’s role will be assessing the biological impact the Vandenberg has on the fish community in the vicinity of this new addition. We fully anticipate that the Vandenberg will add to the fish species richness of the area as fish pass through and eventually settle onto the site as residents; provide protected areas for protected IUCN listed species such as Goliath and Nassau groupers; and increase the fish biomass in the area as the fishes on the Vandenberg mature and then reproduce, in effect seeding the surrounding reefs. The Vandenberg will be deployed in approximately 140-ft of water, close to 540’ in length (just 30-ft longer than the Spiegel), but weighs almost 3 times as much as the Spiegel Grove at around 15,000 tons! REEFMAKERS™ is currently reducing the height of the ship and taking some of the towers and satellite dishes and strategically placing these structures onto the deck, adding a lot of complex structure that should be very attractive habitats for fishes. The aim is to sink the Vandenberg in less than 3 minutes, adding a dramatic crescendo onto a multi-year project in the making!

We are currently working out the final monitoring plan but we anticipate a pre-deployment event in the spring of 2008, followed by 3 additional monitoring events next year using our Advanced Assessment Team members. Similar to the Spiegel, REEF will monitor not only the Vandenberg itself but 7 surrounding reference sites over several days per event. REEF’s data analysis from our 5-year Spiegel project, once complete, will assist us in the Vandenberg project expectations. The sinking of the Vandenberg has been in the planning stages for several years and REEF will be working directly or indirectly with several partners on this project including:

REEFMAKERS™ in New Jersey and Artificial Reefs of the Keys (ARK) based in Key West will be responsible for sinking the Vandenberg, along with the direct support of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. REEF is excited to be a part of this project with all its intrinsic biological, socioeconomic and educational value.

Reefmakers website - http://www.reefmakers.org
ARK website http://www.bigshipwrecks.com
FWC - http://www.myfwc.com

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