The Faces of REEF: Alex Brett

Alex braving the snow to go diving!
The lovable Lumpfish. Photo by Jason Feick.

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 Alex Brett, a REEF member since 2014. Since joining last year, Alex has conducted 27 surveys, almost all in the Northeast (NE) region. Here's what he had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF?

I first heard about REEF at Boston Sea Rovers during a presentation where the invertebrate monitoring program was being unveiled for the New England area. I had been involved in a lot of benthic invertebrate survey work in college, so the idea of adding science to my normal dives was particularly appealing.

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

I feel that the REEF programs are valuable for two equally important reasons. First off, the data that are produced are invaluable for understanding trends in ocean ecosystems. Recreational volunteer divers can collect far more data than most researchers could hope to achieve. Second, I believe that citizen science programs like REEF are invaluable because of how they engage people in marine science. By inspiring divers to become involved in marine science, REEF helps people form a stronger connection to the ocean and makes them more likely to speak up and take action on marine environmental issues.

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

I live on the coast of Maine, and I dive there year-round. I’ve dove many places around the world and it’s still one of my favorite areas to dive. The rugged rocky coast makes for some wonderfully dramatic topography underwater and our high tidal currents bring an awesome diversity of invertebrate life. One of my favorite places to dive in Maine is a spot, about 20 miles offshore, called Mount Desert Rock. The visibility is usually spectacular and a breeding colony of grey seals make for some entertaining dive companions.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Too many possibilities! I definitely can’t pick just one. I love all nudibranchs, particularly those in the genus Flabellina, like the Red-gilled Nudibranch. Lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) are also pretty incredible, with their goofy face and fins modified into a suction disc.

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

I would love to see an Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) while diving. I’ve seen them at the surface many times, but they are such a unique critter I can’t quite imagine encountering one underwater. One of the things I love about diving is that you never quite know what you’re going to run into while you’re out there.

REEF's 2016 Lionfish Derby Series

REEF is continuing to lead the charge on combating invasive lionfish! The 2016 Lionfish Derby Series is just around the corner and it’s going to be bigger than ever.

For those who are not familiar with REEF’s Lionfish Derbies, they are competitions where divers and snorkelers compete to bring in the most lionfish in a single day. There are cash prizes for the teams who land the most lionfish, the largest lionfish and the smallest. REEF hosted the first Lionfish Derby in 2009, making this our 8th year of derbies. Last year over 1,000 lionfish were brought in as part of the series and over 16 thousand lionfish have been removed by participants since the first derby in 2009.

The annual derbies are planned in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Key Largo. This year, we are excited to be adding a fourth derby to the series in Sarasota, partnering with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and ZooKeeper LLC.

To learn more about lionfish, visit www.REEF.org/lionfish, and to see all the details and register for the Derby Series, visit www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies. We also have a REEF Sanctioned Derby program in which REEF helps others organize and conduct safe and effective derbies by providing tools, templates and promotion. Find out more at www.REEF.org/lionfish/events.

Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease

A healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important predator in the kelp forests of the US and Canadian west coast. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A Sunflower Sea Star that has succumbed to wasting disease. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Green Sea Urchin populations have increased in areas where Sunflower Sea Stars have declined. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Sea star wasting disease has devastated sea star populations on the West coast from Mexico to Alaska. The disease broke out in 2013, causing massive death of several species of sea stars. Infected animals develop lesions that eat away tissue, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. The disease has been linked to a virus, although environmental factors may also be involved.

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE, presents an analysis of REEF survey data on several asteroid species collected by divers in the Salish Sea over the last 10 years. The Salish Sea is a Canadian / United States transboundary marine ecosystem, and world-wide hotspot for temperate asteroid species diversity with a high degree of endemism.

The results showed that some species were hit hard, while others increased in number. Populations of Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important keystone predator in the region, dropped dramatically after the beginning of the epidemic. Several other sea star species, including the Spiny Pink Star (Pisaster brevispinus) also declined. Numbers of the less-common Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata) and two species of sea urchin, which are prey for sea stars, increased after 2013.

The virus outbreak continues, and will have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Sunflower Sea Stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes. Likely as a result, numbers of urchins have increased, which in turn will lead to more browsing on kelp. As a result, study co-author, Dr. Joe Gaydos, and his colleagues are currently in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the Sunflower Sea Star listed as a “species of concern.”

The paper, titled "Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids", is available online here. Another study published earlier this year in the journal, PeerJ, used the REEF data to evaluate the potential trophic impacts of the seastar decline, as seen in the increase in sea urchins. That paper is availble here. View the entire list of all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

2018 REEF Trips Schedule Announced

Belize 2016 REEF Field Survey Trip

In 2018, REEF will visit a vast array of tropical and temperate dive destinations, from the Caribbean, to the Pacific Northwest, and beyond! These Field Survey Trips offer a great introduction to fish identification for novice surveyors, and are a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow marine life enthusiasts. We also offer several Lionfish Research Trips each year. REEF staff, board members, and other REEF experts lead these trips, and each trip features daily educational seminars and a full diving schedule. Check out www.REEF.org/trips!

The 2018 schedule highlights include a Key Largo Field Survey to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, a family-friendly eco-adventure to the mountains, rainforests, and beaches of Costa Rica, a liveaboard trip to the renowned marine park, Gardens of the Queen Cuba, and many great Caribbean destinations. For individual trip details and more info, please visit the links below. To find out more or to book your space, contact us at trips@REEF.org or call 305-588-5869.

2018 REEF Field Survey Trip Schedule

  • Feb. 10-17: Kona, Hawaii - Kona Aggressor II Liveaboard, with Janna Nichols -- details
  • April 17-27: Andaman Sea, Thailand – Thailand Aggressor Liveaboard, with Christy Semmens -- details
  • May 1-6: God’s Pocket, British Columbia – God’s Pocket Resort, with Janna Nichols -- details
  • May 12-19: Grenada – Grenada Aquanauts Grenada and True Blue Bay Resort, with Amy Lee -- details
  • May 26-June 2: BahamasInvasive Lionfish Research Trip – Turks & Caicos Explorer II, with Lad Akins and Peter Hughes -- details
  • June 2-12: Fiji – NAI’A Liveaboard, with Christy Semmens -- details
  • June 23-30: Key LargoCelebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Volunteer Fish Survey Project! – Horizon Divers & Marina Del Mar, with Paul Humann -- details
  • July 14-21: Costa Rica – Diving and Mountains Eco-Tour Adventure, with Christy and Brice Semmens -- details
  • Aug 4-13: Fernando de Noronha, Brazil – Atlantis Divers Brazil, with Ned and Anna DeLoach -- details
  • Aug 18-25: BelizeInvasive Lionfish Research Trip – Splash Belize & Pelican Beach Resort, with Lad Akins and Peter Hughes -- Details Coming Soon
  • Aug 18-25: Gardens of the Queen, Cuba – Avalon II Liveaboard, with Christy and Brice Semmens -- details
  • Sept 23-30: St. Lucia – Post REEF Fest Fish Survey Trip – Anse Chastanet, with Lad Akins -- details
  • Oct. 2-16: Philippines – Atlantis Dumaguete & Atlantis Azores Liveaboard, with Ned and Anna DeLoach -- details
  • Nov. 3-10: Cayman Brac – Brac Reef Beach Resort, with Janna Nichols -- details
  • Dec. 1-8: Eastern Caribbean – Special REEF Fish Survey Itinerary – Caribbean Explorer II Liveaboard, with Ellie Splain -- details
  • Dec. 1-8: Cozumel – Chili Charters & Safari Inn/Casa Mexicana, with Tracey Griffin -- details
  • Jan. 6-16, 2019: Maldives – Inaugural REEF Eastern Indian Ocean Region Expansion Trip! – Carpe Vita Explorer, with Christy Semmens -- details

Lobstaah Diving in New England

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From front left - Holly Martel Bourbon, Alison Johnson, Jeanette Lysne, Blair Bertaccini, Jochen Faas, Peter Lysne, Carl Johnson, and Joe Cavanaugh.
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Sea Raven, Hemitripterus americanus, seen on Cape Ann dive. Photo by Alison Johnson.
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From front right - Sarah Taylor, Holly Martel Bourbon, Alison Johnson, Jeanette Lysne, Blair Bertaccini, Joe Cavanaugh, Carl Johnson, Jochen Faas and Peter Lysne.

REEF just completed our first bona fide New England Field Survey this past week. It was a big success and really ended up being a reconnoitering expedition to determine how REEF can better translate our Fish Survey Project to the Northeast where there are plenty of divers getting out in the water but very few who conduct surveys. There is also a seasonal effect for the northeast in that the fish all hibernate or leave when the water temperature drops to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving a 7 month fish surveying season in most areas (April-October). Shore diving is more the norm for many locations throughout New England and there are few commercial charter boats as you would find in the Caribbean, for instance. And dive clubs really are the main vehicle for divers to connect and coordinate temperate dives as well as arranging tropical dive trips for some winter relief.

Our REEF team was made up of 9 divers and we were based in historical Woods Hole on Cape Cod.  We dived in Woods Hole, Dennis, and off of Cape Ann (our chilliest venue with bottom temps close to 50 degrees already. I co-lead this group with Holly Martel Bourbon, a marine fishery biologist and diving safety officer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  We were also joined by Sarah Taylor who is a New England Aquarium Aquarist II and collector.  Together, Holly and I coordinated with a number of dive shops in the region and Maryhelen Shuman-Groh set up a REEF talk at the New England Aquarium Dive Club that meets every month at the aquarium and is where I got my start about 12 years ago. Incidentally, we surveyed a combined total of 19 fish species, no century dives in New England, let's just say you shoot for deca-dives (10 species) and this is why you won't find New England divers complaining on Caribbean dives, well, that and the fact that visibility beyond 10 feet is a blessing. We found a few wayward foureye and spotfin butterflyfish juveniles settled from the Gulf Stream. Next time we'll have to go to Rhode Island to help collect some of the tropicals.

New England diving is definitely unique and requires a special type of REEF capacity building to jumpstart the Fish Survey Project in the region. Bringing more dive shops into the fold such as Divers Market in Plymouth and Cape Ann Divers in Gloucester is a good first step in increasing REEF's efforts and the chance to engage the New England Aquarium Dive Club was especially important as this dive club reaches many of the naturalist divers in the region. I also attended a Boston Sea Rovers picnic (one of the oldest and most storied dive clubs in the U.S.) as Holly's guest and had the opportunity to speak with folks about REEF and our mission and hopes for increasing surveys in the region. Look for REEF to give a talk at the next Sea Rovers annual meeting in Boston http://www.bostonsearovers.com/  in March of 2008 and for us to give a REEF Citizens Science talk as part of the New England Aquarium's Lowell Lecture Series. We will also be partnering with the Aquarium as our newest Field Station http://neaq.org/. REEF and NEAQ will begin working on a number of training programs together to increase survey efforts in the northeast as well as having Aquarium divers become Advanced Assessment Team members and conduct surveys on their collection trips. There are many other opportunities for collaboration between NEAQ and REEF.

I would like to thank the REEF members who were all wonderful  and patient on this trip as Holly and I had to kind of make things up as we went since this type of trip had not been done before, sort of a boat diving and shore diving mix, Bonaire meets New England without the yellow rocks. Thanks to Holly for co-leading the trip with me could not have done it without her) and to her boss, Vin Malkoski, for giving her the time to work with REEF and for the use of one of their vans for the week along with digital projector and many other shore diving supplies. Alison Johnson will be donating some underwater images from our dives for future curriculum/training along with Terrence Rioux, the dive safety officer for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Holly and I plan on developing a more contemporary and appropriate curriculum that includes juvenile fish images and more inclusion of fish species that divers are likely to see on inshore dives.  Lastly, I want to thank both Divers Market in Plymouth and Cape Ann Divers in Gloucester as well as the Marine Biological Laboratory for the use of their dive locker and their conference center at SWOPE.

REEF.org Web Tip

Can't remember your REEF number?

Use the lost member number lookup feature on the new Website.

REEF Divers Net Quite a Find

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A derelict gill net found by REEF surveyors in the Puget Sound. The net had ensnared dozens of animals and was damaging habitat. Photo by Pete Naylor.
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A lingcod entangled in the gill net, a result of "ghost fishing". Photo by Pete Naylor.
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The net was draped over rare cloud sponges. Photo by Pete Naylor.

Last Summer during a dive with Pacific Adventure Charters in Hood Canal, Washington, a group of REEF Pacific Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) surveyors came across something unexpected. As part of REEF’s funded project with The Russell Family Foundation, the team’s goal was to look for invasive tunicates and do REEF marine life surveys on several previously unsurveyed sites. While they found the invasive tunicates they were looking for, they also found a derelict fishing net that was damaging fragile habitat and ensnaring marine life.

AAT members, Pete Naylor, Steve Rubin and Janna Nichols found the abandoned gill net on a wall, amid large growths of Cloud Sponge (Aphrocallistes vastus), one of Puget Sound’s rarest and longest lived animals and an invertebrate species monitored in the REEF Pacific Northwest Volunteer Survey Project program. As the name implies, cloud sponges form pale, irregular cloud-shaped colonies, which can be more than ten feet across and seven feet high. These colonies attach to rocky surfaces and provide complex habitat for a variety of marine species. The nearly invisible monofilament derelict gill net was draped over and around the cloud sponge colonies, clearly causing damage. Dungeness crab and other invertebrates lay dead and entangled in the net’s folds.

Concerned by what she saw that day, Janna contacted the Northwest Straits Commission, a regional marine conservation initiative that runs a derelict gear removal program. Given the net’s direct threat to the safety of divers and that it was causing clear harm to marine life and habitat, the Commission made removing the gill net in Dewatto Bay a high priority. After an initial search in the Fall 2007 that failed to locate the net, the net was successfully located with the help of REEF members Keith Clements and Rob Holman. Trained commercial divers removed the net from the fragile cloud sponge reef earlier this month. It was clear during the removal operation that the net had swung in the current and scraped much of the rocky outcrop clean of marine life. But cloud sponge colonies were still present on either side. The initial REEF survey conducted last summer will now serve as a baseline for future monitoring. A REEF team, including Janna, Pete and Steve are planning to revisit the site in May to note any signs of recovery.

Jeff June, the Initiative’s derelict gear program lead commented about the collaborative effort: “This particular net removal effort shows the importance of the REEF divers participation in these types of projects. We would have probably never known there was a gillnet in the vicinity of these amazing sponges had the REEF folks not been monitoring the site.”

Janna made this observation about encountering the net: “From a diver's point of view, it's really shocking to see firsthand just how much marine life a derelict net can snare and kill. We spend hours underwater all around the waters of Washington State, and are specifically attracted to viewing and protecting all the amazing wildlife we can on each dive. Seeing trapped and dead or dying fish and invertebrates is a real shame. Derelict gear not only poses hazards to all the marine life they continue to snare and kill, but to divers as well, because of the entanglement hazards.”

If you are a Pacific Northwest diver, you can report derelict fishing gear in Washington through the WDFW Sighting Form. Other states have similar programs.

REEF News Tidbits for July

  • One female space just opened up on the upcoming Baja Mexico Field Survey aboard the Don Jose Liveaboard. This trip has been sold out for a while and we don't expect the space to last long.  The trip begins and ends in La Paz and runs October 5-12.  Check out the trip flyer to find out more.  Contact Jeanne from Baja Expeditions at 800-843-6967 or travel@bajaex.com.
  • Get your limited edition "It's All About the Fish" t-shirt today.  Available in 4 tropical colors.  Order yours today from the REEF Store.  Also available from the REEF Store is the brand new 2nd Edition of Coastal Fish Identification field guide by Paul Humann.  This book covers species found from California to Alaska and the new edition includes more than 30 new species and over 70 new photographs.  Click here to order your copy.

REEF Gearing Up For Another Year of Nassau Grouper Aggregation Research

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Approximately 3,500 Nassau grouper, an endangered species, gather off Little Cayman Island during winter full moons to reproduce. Photo by Scott Heppell.
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A light trap deployed underwater in Little Cayman to study the recruitment of larval Nassau grouper.

REEF scientists, volunteers and collaborators will be in the Cayman Islands next month for the 8th year of the Grouper Moon Project. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded last year by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF has greatly expanded the critical conservation research conducted as part of this study of Nassau grouper spawning aggregations. We will have teams on all three of the Cayman Islands conducting field research as part of the project, “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”. The Little Cayman team will continue the long-term visual monitoring of the large aggregation located there. Work on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac will focus on studying the remnant aggregations that remain on these islands after years of fishing. There is currently a harvest ban in effect for all aggregations in the islands. This ban is set to be lifted in 2011 unless the extension of the protections are warranted.

Despite logistical complications, weather anomalies and difficulties locating fish, the Grouper Moon Project had a successful year of field-work in 2008. The team conducted preliminary work on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman, tagging Nassau grouper with pinger acoustic tags and then installing hydrophone arrays to track the movements of those tagged individuals. Studies were also conducted to better understand the patterns of recruitment by larval and juvenile Nassau grouper to the islands. In addition, members of our team attended major scientific conferences both nationally and internationally, and presented aspects of our research and findings to date.

In the Winter of 2002, REEF launched the Grouper Moon Project with a ground breaking expedition to observe the Nassau grouper spawning aggregation off the western tip of Little Cayman and to develop a protocol for monitoring their numbers and activity at the site. Since that first year, REEF has coordinated annual efforts to monitor and study the Little Cayman Nassau grouper aggregation. The project has grown in scope to include an ambitious acoustic tagging research project, juvenile habitat and genetics studies, and early results have been published in the scientific literature. This work is a collaboration with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment and researchers from Oregon State University.

To find out more, visit the Grouper Moon Project webpage.

REEF Regional Lionfish Workshops in Georgia and Mexico

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REEF's Special Project and Lionfish expert, Lad Akins, demonstrates collecting techniques during a Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary workshop.
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Director of the Cozumel Marine Park, Ricardo Lozano, explains the lionfish response plan to media.

As part of REEF's efforts to increase awareness about the invasive lionfish, train removal teams and develop regional response plans, REEF recently conducted a series of workshops, talks and lionfish removals in partnership with the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS) in Georgia and the Cozumel Marine Park in Mexico. Combined the two projects held in July 2009 included 15 talks to more than 370 people.

The Gray's Reef project included a meeting of Sanctuary personnel from the Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuaries, working to develop a regional coordinated response plan. Sanctuary and REEF staff also conducted two days of lionfish collecting and handling dives, including the removal of 54 lionfish averaging almost 30 cm from sites just outside the GRNMS boundaries. Talks to the general public, Sanctuary Advisory Council and Georgia Law Enforcement working groups also helped increase awareness of the lionfish issue and conveyed removal plans for the region.

Immediately following the Gray's Reef project, a week-long series of workshops and talks were held in Mexico to initiate development of the Mexican regional lionfish response plan focusing on the Yucatan. An initial day-long meeting included over 40 representatives, including national environmental regulators, regional marine park directors, conservation and science groups, academia and the Mexican Navy. Presentations and discussions resulted in the development of an early detection/rapid response plan. The plan was then unveiled in numerous public and key user group talks including those to dive operators, fishermen, medical/first responders and university groups. Training dives with Marine Park staff also resulted in the removal of 3 juvenile lionfish from local Cozumel reefs.

To find out more about REEF's Lionfish Research Program and to report a lionfish or other non-native fish sighting, visit the REEF Lionfish Webpage.

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