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.

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

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

Lionfish Letters from the Field - Early Detection, Rapid Response and Outreach

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Lad Akins holds a captured lionfish. Volunteers can help with removal efforts such as this one during REEF's Lionfish Research Projects. Photo by Sally Burrows.
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Indo-Pacific Lionfish are now omni-present throughout the Bahamas. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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REEF recently held a training workshop for dive staff and government officials in the Turks and Caicos sponsored by Dive Provo.

REEF continues our efforts as a leader in confronting the invasion of Indo-Pacific Lionfish into the eastern US, Caribbean and Bahamas. In November, we participated in a workshop to help craft a national response to the invasion in the Bahamas, conducted training in the Turks and Caicos where lionfish are just starting to show up and shared findings from our field work at an international conference (see GCFI article). Our work, both in the field conducting research with our academic and government partners as well as conducting education and outreach with the public, is making a big difference in this critical environmental problem. To get involved and help with control efforts in the Turks and Caicos, join on REEF's upcoming lionfish project with Dive Provo, January 17-24.

On November 6th and 7th, the Bahamas government hosted their National Lionfish Response Planning Workshop in Nassau, Bahamas with over 40 representatives from government agencies and NGOs. REEF’s Lad Akins was invited as a key presenter during the first day of lectures and lead instructor during the second day of collecting and dissections. Organized by Marine Resources’ Lakeshia Anderson, the workshop was designed to bring officials up to speed on the current state of knowledge and ongoing lionfish research, what potential solutions were available for addressing the invasion, proposed legal changes relating to lionfish collection, collecting and handling techniques, first aid, dissections and even a cooking demonstration. During the field operations with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, participants were exposed to collecting and handling techniques and were able to collect over 60 lionfish on 2 short dives. Later that day, dissecting demonstrations were held then the remaining fish were battered and fried (to rave reviews) by local lionfish cooking expert Gregory Maillis. Attendees of the workshop were praised by director of Marine Resources, Michael Braynen, and were then charged with continuing education, outreach, and collecting efforts in their local communities and out-islands.

At the end of the month, Lad traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to conduct training and education workshops for staff at Dive Provo and for the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR). The effort, funded by Dive Provo, included three days of training for Dive Provo staff and instructors including morning seminars and afternoon field work. In addition, local residents joined in on the third day to learn about the issue and help locate lionfish during afternoon dives. On day four, Lad met with DECR Scientific Officer Marlon Hibbert and Director of DECR Wesley Clerveaux. A two-hour seminar was presented to DECR fisheries officers followed by discussions about REEF’s return visit in January. The January effort will represent the first focused lionfish project in the Turks and Caicos and will also gather fish diversity information that will be compared to historical REEF data to assess changes to the local reef systems over the past 10 years. While lionfish are not as abundant in the Turks and Caicos as they are now in the Bahamas, the situation does provide the perfect opportunity to implement country-wide education and control efforts. REEF’s upcoming project with Dive Provo on January 17-24 will be critically important in getting a good start on these control efforts. To join in REEF’s Turks and Caicos Project, call REEF Reservations at 877-295-7333 or email REEF@caradonna.com.

To find out more about REEF's Lionfish Research Program, visit our lionfish webpage.

Discover Bermuda With Ned and Anna DeLoach

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Grotto Bay Resort will be home base for the week in Bermuda.
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Church Bay is one of the many beautiful snorkeling sites in Bermuda.
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The Blue Angelfish is one of the species divers and snorkelers will see in Bermuda. Photo by John Burville.

Make a dive trip that counts - in Bermuda, October 3- 10, on the Fish Behavior Tour! World-renowned marine naturalists, Ned and Anna DeLoach, authors of Reef Fish Identification and Reef Fish Behavior, will join local expert REEF instructor, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook, Collector of Specimens for the Bermuda Aquarium, as your trip leaders. Ned and Anna will schedule slide and video fish presentations about the wonderful world of marine life behavior and fish identification. This is an excellent destination for your non-diving friends and family as well.

This is going to be an awesome week for everyone. Bermuda is a wonderful destination and the Grotto Bay Hotel offers fine accommodation and dining. Their on site dive operation – Triangle Diving – is exceptional and their dive staff's knowledge and experience means they will be able to chose the very best dive sites each day. Ned and Anna's engaging and informative lectures will cover everything from fish identification to interesting behaviors, including reproduction and predation. In addition to many of the usual suspects, you will be able to see endemics like our Bermuda Bream and some species like the Blue Angelfish that are rarely seen elsewhere but common in Bermuda.

Bermuda is a also a wonderful place to come with your non-diving spouse/partner/friend/children. Anyone who just wants to snorkel will be able to do so comfortably at most of the dive sites or just along the shoreline and still see lots of fish and corals. On land there is so much to see and do, and local REEF volunteers will be on hand to give personal island sightseeing tours to anyone interested. Shopping is great with lots of local and British products. Don’t forget the pristine, beautiful beaches with the fine pink sand – there for anyone who just wants to chill out.

Our island hosts have arranged an exciting agenda for the week to make this not just a typical dive vacation. These opportunities include a presentation by the Bermuda BREAM Project scientists, a visit to Nonsuch Island (a magical place to explore and a birdwatcher's delight), viewing the glowworms at Whalebone Bay, watching the invasive lionfish culling team and the lionfish culinary team in action – as in “catch and eat” – yummy!, all topped off with a cocktail reception and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.

Don't miss your chance to take a trip of a lifetime. The cost per person is $2,095, plus a $300 REEF Program Fee. The package Includes: 7 nights in Oceanfront Superior room, taxes and resort gratuities, round-trip airport transfers, 5 days of 2-tank boat dives with Triangle Divers, behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium, classroom sessions and survey materials.

This is just one of several REEF Trips that remain in 2009. A few spaces remain on the Field Surveys to Curacao in October and Cozumel in December -- check out the full trip schedule online. And stay tuned for our 2010 Field Survey schedule, which will be announced soon! For more information and to reserve your space please contact our dedicated REEF Travel Consultant at 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or you can e-mail REEF@caradonna.com.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub