Since 2001, REEF has led the Grouper Moon Project, a multi-faceted, collaborative research effort with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDOE) aimed at better understanding Nassau grouper reproduction and the role that marine reserves can play in the long-term protection of this endangered species. Earlier this month, we had researchers and volunteers in the field for two weeks to conduct field research on spawning aggregations in Grand Cayman and Little Cayman. The site on Little Cayman represents one of the largest known remaining aggregations of Nassau grouper; our research will provide valuable guidance to both the Cayman Islands government and others throughout the Caribbean on how to best protect this important coral reef fish.
In 2003 the Cayman Island Marine Conservation Board instituted an 8-year fishing ban on Nassau grouper at all known aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands (both current and historic). This followed the discovery by fisherman of 7,000 aggregating Nassau grouper on the west end of Little Cayman in 2001 and the subsequent harvest of 4,000 of those fish over two spawning seasons. At the time, all other known Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands had become inactive due to over-harvest. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded in 2008 by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF is conducting research through the Grouper Moon Project to evaluate the current status of the Cayman Islands spawning aggregations and the effect of these harvest protections -- “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”.
The broad goals for the 2010 spawning season were to continue monitoring recovery in the large spawning aggregation on Little Cayman, and to expand research into the fate of remnant spawning aggregations on Grand Cayman; aggregations on this island were fished to exhaustion in the recent past. REEF continued education and outreach efforts through public talks about spawning aggregations and the Grouper Moon research. As the sunset provision on the current legislation nears, REEF is working closely with the Cayman Islands government to translate the findings from our research into effective long-term protections. I spent time with the Honorable Mark Scotland, the Minister of Health, Environment, Youth, Sports & Culture, which oversees the Department of Environment in the Cayman Islands, discussing the project, our ground-breaking results, and recommendations for the future of this iconic species.
2010 Aggregation Season Results Summary
The Little Cayman team continued the long-term monitoring of this aggregation, which includes counting the number of fish that show up, estimating the size of the fish, and recording the timing and amount of spawning observed. The REEF research team uses lasers mounted on a video camera to record sizes of fish. If you would like to see what the Little Cayman aggregation looks like during the day, check out this video on YouTube. You will see the laser marks on the fish. Note that these are all Nassau grouper, just in different spawning colors. The team estimated that the number of fish showing up at the aggregation is approaching 4,000. We are also seeing a decrease if average size, which indicates that younger fish are starting to show up (good news!). Spawning was observed on four consecutive nights, starting 4 days after the full moon.
The Grand Cayman team’s primary goal was to document the remnant Nassau grouper aggregation on the East End of Grand Cayman and hopefully observe spawning. The status of this aggregation was initially documented by a Grouper Moon team in 2009. This year, with a lot of help from our partners at CIDOE and Wayne Sullivan and his crew aboard the Glen Ellen, REEF volunteer Denise Mizell was able to head up this critical component of our research. While several hundred fish were found at this historical spawning site, spawning was not documented. Unfortunately, we believe that fisherman were illegally fishing on the aggregation when our team was not on site. It is possible that this disturbance prevented the fish from spawning. This is disappointing news, but we are hopeful that the Cayman Islands government will pass revised legislation and provide more enforcement before next spawning season in order to protect the few remaining Nassau grouper on Grand Cayman.
Why Does This Matter?
Nassau grouper are not just icons of the Caribbean; they are a social and ecological cornerstone of the region’s coral reefs. Historically, Nassau grouper represented one of the region’s most economically important fisheries. Unfortunately, due to intense harvest on spawning aggregations, their populations have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The species became the first Caribbean reef fish to be listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the species is candidate listed under the US Endangered Species Act. The precipitous decline in mass spawning aggregations of Caribbean grouper species has been well documented. The majority of known Caribbean aggregation sites are now inactive due to the ease with which aggregating species are caught. And those that are still active contain significantly fewer fish than the 10s of thousands that historically gathered at these special places.
As part of our work on the Grouper Moon Project, REEF will continue to develop a comprehensive assessment of the status of the Cayman Island’s Nassau grouper spawning population as a guide for future Nassau grouper restoration and conservation policy.
Collaborators and Supporters Who Make This Project Possible
REEF would like to thank our collaborators at the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, specifically Phil Bush, Bradley Johnson, Croy McCoy, James Gibb, Tim Austin, Gina Ebanks-Pietre, Keith Neale, Delwin McLaughlin and Robert Walton, as well as Drs. Scott and Selina Heppell from Oregon State University. REEF Volunteers have always been at the core of our Grouper Moon field work and 2010 was no exception – heartfelt thanks to Heather George, Steve Gittings, Denise Mizell and Sheryl Shea. The support and assistance of Thor Dunmire is also greatly appreciated. The Grouper Moon Project has continued through the years empowered by the first year’s success and the passion of early project leader Leslie Whaylen Clift. Assistance from OSU graduate student, Stephanie Kraft Archer, is much appreciated. Principal financial support is from the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the CIDOE. Additional funding is from Mr. Wayne Panton, Mr. Dan Scott, Clive and Stella Wood, Franklin and Cassandra Neal, and hundreds of REEF members. Continued in-kind logistical support from island businesses and residents, including the Little Cayman Beach Resort/Reef Divers, the Southern Cross Club, Peter Hillenbrand, Dottie Benjamin, and Judie Clee is also much appreciated. To alleviate the constraints of diving deep depths on regular scuba, several other sponsors came on board to assist in the project, including Divetech and PM Gas of Grand Cayman, Silent Diving of Brockville, Ontario and Shearwater Research of Vancouver, British Columbia.
And finally, our work on Grand Cayman would not have been possible without the generous support of Wayne Sullivan, who donated his vessel the Glen Ellen, his time (and patience), his equipment and technical diving expertise, and his crew, Brady Booton and several others.
For more information on the project, visit the Grouper Moon Project Webpage. If you would like to support this critical marine conservation research, please donate today through the REEF Website or call REEF HQ at 305-852-0030.
Nassau Grouper Shirts Back in the Online Store - After selling out, "Grumpy" shirts are now back in stock in the REEF online store. These short and long-sleeve shirts features the face of a Nassau Grouper. "Grumpy" is the artwork of Rogest, who created the piece to celebrate REEF's Grouper Moon Project and our work to conserve this Caribbean icon. The shirts feature the tag line "Extinction Makes Me Grumpy". Get yours today, they won't last long.
New REEF Field Stations - This past month, we welcomed Beaches Boscobel Resort & Golf Club in Jamaica to our growing list of Field Stations. They join the almost 200 Field Stations and Independent Instructors worldwide.
Did You Know -- REEF Online Data Entry Available in All Regions - REEF surveyors in ALL regions can now submit their data online. We greatly encourage everyone to enter their surveys online rather than use the paper scanforms, if possible. And remember -- if you conduct a survey at a site that is not yet in REEF's Zone Code database, send us an email (email@example.com) with the site name and latitude/longitude of the site and we will create the code for you. The 8-digit zone code must be in the system before you can enter data from the site.
Become a Fan of REEF on Facebook - The REEF Facebook Page is a place to find the latest information about our programs and events, REEF's marine conservation work, and exclusive content and stories. It's also a great place for our members to post pictures, fish stories and whatever is on their mind. Become a "Fan" today!
REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 43,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.
This month we highlight Don Judy (REEF member since 2008). Don lives on Maui, Hawaii, and has conducted 365 REEF surveys. Here's what Don had to say about REEF:
Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands in the world. Over 2000 miles separate them from the nearest continental land mass. I have been an avid snorkeler here for many years. When I heard about doing surveys for REEF, I knew I would truly enjoy my snorkeling even more doing surveys and reporting my sightings. I am fortunate to live near the ocean and my favorite reef snorkel site is five minutes from my home. When I enter the underwater world, I am always captivated by the dazzling array of tropical fish and their behaviors. Showing off their colors with darting and swirling motions, these beautiful creatures cause the reef to explode with life.
What are some of your favorite places to conduct REEF surveys? Do you have a favorite fish you see there?
The reef I most frequently survey is called Kahekili. I have done more than 300 surveys on this reef and feel like I have an ongoing personal relationship with all these wonderful fish. The water is crystal clear with an average temperature about 76 degrees. This reef always provides me with a chance to see 75 to 100 different species of fish. My favorite local fish on this reef is the Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma veliferum). When they raise their colorful dorsal fin, it looks like an elevated boat sail. Upon closer look, the colors in the elevated dorsal fin become an intricately woven spectrum of colors and patterns.
The island of Lanai (about 9 miles west) has another of my favorite reef beaches, Hulopoe. It is a protected marine reef featuring large schools of endemic fish found only in the Hawaiian Islands. Here my favorite fish is the Spectacled Parrotfish (Chlorurus perspicillatus). This spectacular parrotfish is the largest of the endemic parrotfish. Super (or terminal) males are deep blue green with a conspicuous dark band (the "spectacles") across the top of the snout.
What other ways do you help REEF besides being such an active surveyor?
Over the years, I have been able to recruit new REEF members. I do “outreach” stations for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary here on Maui and this puts me in constant contact with snorkelers and divers. Naturally, I talk about REEF and doing REEF surveys when people come to us for information. I like it that the REEF surveys that we do on Maui can help establish populations baselines in determining the direction of fish population.
What are some of your most memorable finds on a REEF survey?
The Commerson’s Frogfish, with their ability to disguise themselves while sitting right in front of your eyes on a piece of coral-mimicking the colors of the coral, and the Oriental Flying Gurnard, with their enormous wing like pectoral fins and wide square heads.
The REEF database topped 150,000 surveys this month! The lucky 150k survey was conducted by Ross Whiteside on June 13, 2011, at Mixing Bowl in Little Cayman. Ross and his wife Terri have been active REEF members since 2002 and are members of the Advanced Assessment Team. Congrats Ross and Terri, and thanks to all of our surveying members for helping us achieve this landmark!
I was conducting a snorkel survey at Kahekili Reef on West Maui when an unknown critter came slithering across the coral. My camera was clipped to a utility belt and it took me a few seconds to swing it up to my face. I've learned I may have only one chance to capture a photo, so I took a quick photo from the surface before free-diving down to get a closer look. I was only halfway down, at about 15 feet, when the critter dove head-first into the sand and quickly disappeared. Two photos -- from the surface, and a tail shot -- are the only evidence I have. My heart was pounding because it looked like a sea snake, but only the Yellow Bellied Sea Snake is rarely seen in the coastal waters of the main Hawaiian Islands. Upon close inspection later, the photos confirmed that it was not a sea snake -- the tail shot confirms a pointy ending, not a paddle-like tail that a sea snake would have. After some searching through FishBase and Keoki & Yuko Stender's Marine Life Photography websites, I was able to confirm that my mystery was the Saddled Snake Eel (Leiuranus semicinctus). It's not surprising that this incredible sighting happened at Kahekili Reef. It is the number one most species rich site in the REEF database for Hawaii (http://www.REEF.org/db/stats). Kahekili Reef (also sometimes known as Airport Beach) is an amazing low-profile reef in front of a West Maui development that we are trying to save by letting the fish and urchins "naturally" graze down the algae, and is now a Marine Protected Area.
In July 1993, REEF had the first Field Survey trip in Key Largo and welcomed our first members. Yesterday, on June 29, 2012, we were excited to welcome REEF Member #50,000. REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. The REEF staff and Board of Directors extend a big thank you to all of our members for making the last nineteen years a success.
On behalf of the REEF Staff and Trustees, I want to thank all the donors from our Winter Fundraising campaign who helped us reach our target goal. With your help, we can continue REEF's core conservation programs, such as fighting the Lionfish invasion in the Caribbean, protecting Grouper spawning aggregations, collecting data through our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, and providing free online "Fishinars" to the general public and fish experts worldwide.
If you haven't given already, there are a few days left in our campaign to receive my limited, signed print of a Grouper Moon aggregation for contributions of $250 and over. In addition to donating online, you can also call REEF Headquarters at 305-852-0030, or mail in your donation to REEF, PO Box 246, Key Largo, FL 33037. Thank you again for your support!
Earlier this summer, we proudly released the next generation of REEF survey technology, the REEF Data Entry Program. When surveying began in 1993, divers and snorkelers wrote out each sighted fish species on a slate and submitted the surveys to the database using paper scantron forms. In 1994, we developed pre-printed underwater survey paper to make surveying easier, and in 2005 we said goodbye to bubble-filling and premiered online data entry using the Internet. The time had come to innovate yet again.
With our members in mind, we looked to develop a data entry tool that would meet the varied needs of our surveyors, including those who are traveling or live in areas with limited Internet access. The REEF Survey Data Entry Program allows our volunteers to enter REEF surveys without an Internet connection. When they have access to the web, the entered surveys are uploaded to the REEF online entry portal. Users then logon to the portal, complete error checking, and submit the surveys to REEF. The program operates on both Mac and PC computers, and is available for all of REEF’s survey regions. Our Beta-testers and early users agree it’s a great program, and many of them prefer the offline data entry program over online data entry.
The program is free to download at: www.REEF.org/dataentryprogram. Give it a try next time you survey! We hope you enjoy the program as much as we do. Feel free to send feedback to data@REEF.org. REEF extends a huge thank you to programmer, Chris MacGregor, for his work on this project, as well as REEF members who encouraged us to pursue this option and made contributions to support its development.
Data generated by the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project provide an unparalleled opportunity to examine patterns in reef fish diversity (the number and types of species) at the scales of reefs, regions, and even an entire ocean basin. Authors of one recent scientific study took advantage of the over 25,000 Expert REEF surveys conducted at 80 sites from 6 Caribbean ecoregions over 17 years. The authors of the paper, which was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, used the REEF data to evaluate patterns of biodiversity across many spatial scales (from individual sites to ecoregions). They also incorporated factors such as fisheries impacts and how connected different regions are to each other through ocean currents. They compared levels of different types of diversity-- alpha diversity (α-diversity) that explains local diversity (the number of species found in a given place), and beta diversity (β-diversity) that explains the difference in diversity among sites. Their results showed that fish assemblages are more homogenous than expected, particularly at the ecoregion scale. Within each ecoregion, diversity was mainly attributed to alpha diversity, indicating that fishes within each ecoregion are a subsample of the same species pool. Studies like this one that examine regional patterns of diversity in coral reef systems are important because of declining biodiversity in many areas. The paper's citation is: Francisco-Ramos V, Arias-González JE . 2013. Additive Partitioning of Coral Reef Fish Diversity Across Hierarchical Spatial Scales Throughout the Caribbean. PLoS ONE. 8(10): e78761. To read the full paper, or any of the other 50+ scientific papers that have included REEF data and programs, visit the REEF Publications page.
Every month, scientists, government agencies, and other groups request raw data from REEF’s Fish Survey Project database. Here is a sampling of who has asked for REEF data recently and what they are using it for:
- Scientists from NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources are using REEF data to evaluate populations of seabass and grouper in the Caribbean.
- A scientist from the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs is using REEF data on fishes and invertebrates to evaluate MPAs in the Puget Sound.
- A professor from California State San Luis Obispo is using REEF data to evaluate populations of three large parrotfish species in the Caribbean (Blue, Midnight, Rainbow).