Remembering Joe Thomas

Joe Thomas at the helm of his boat.

On August 24, 2015, a beloved member of our Key Largo community unexpectedly passed away. Joe Thomas of Ocean Divers was a brilliant captain, a caring mentor, and a wonderful friend, known for his softspoken demeanor and sharp sense of humor. Joe loved to share his passion for the sea, whether it was through educating young divers or imparting his knowledge of the local dive sites and Key Largo history to the many who looked up to him. Joe was a member of the REEF family for more than 20 years. He selflessly dedicated his time to helping many generations of Marine Conservation Interns advance their diving skills by offering training and certifications for courses such as Nitrox, Advanced Open Water, and Rescue Diver. Joe also provided support for and participated in numerous REEF monitoring and research projects throughout the Florida Keys. He was a valued member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team and made a significant contribution to citizen science by submitting more than 500 fish surveys. He will be greatly missed.

At the request of Joe's close friends throughout the Key Largo community, The Joe Thomas Memorial Fund has been created as a legacy to remember the ideals by which Joe lived and worked, and to support educating future generations of marine conservationists and divers to protect the ocean that Joe loved so much. Proceeds from the fund will be used to aid young people beginning careers in marine conservation and diving by providing intern scholarships and dive certifications. To contribute to the fund, click here to donate securely online. Be sure to type "Joe Thomas" in the comment section on the donation page. You can also make a donation over the phone by calling REEF at 305-852-0030, or by sending a check to REEF HQ, PO Box 370246, Key Largo, FL 33037.

A celebration of life will be held in Key Largo later this month. If you have a memory of Joe to share, please visit www.REEF.org/joethomas.

Join REEF in Palau and Yap this Fall

Join REEF's Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, aboard the Palau Aggressor II in October.
Hundreds of islands await us in Micronesia.

We kicked off our 2016 REEF Trip schedule this month with two great trips - a Lionfish Research Expedition in Dominica and a Field Survey Trip to Barbados. And those are just the beginning. We have a great lineup of destinations for 2016 and we recently announced several exciting destinations for 2017, including the Galapagos and the Solomon Islands. The complete 2017 schedule will be released next month. For complete details and schedule of REEF Trips, visit www.REEF.org/trips.

One of the new exciting destinations for 2016 is Micronesia in October, exploring land and sea in Palau and Yap at Manta Ray Bay Resort and the Palau Aggressor II Liveaboard. Four spaces are left so don't delay in making your plans. This exciting 12-day adventure, October 4-16, begins land-based at the world-renowned Manta Ray Bay Resort in Yap, featuring three days of diving Yap's rich coral walls, channels, and lagoon sites, all while observing creatures including manta rays, reef sharks, and maybe even mating mandarinfish. After diving Yap, recharge with a night at the Palau Royal Resort. Then the excursion continues with a 7-night charter aboard the Palau Aggressor II, with the opportunity for up to 5 dives exploring the rich tropical waters. Surveyors can look forward to discovering Napoleon wrasses, titan triggerfish, crocodile fish, and many different species of gobies tucked among an abundance of hard and soft corals. Participants will also have the unique chance to snorkel Palau's Jellyfish Lake and then dive the Chandelier Caves. Visit the trip page for all the details.

Introducing REEF Conservation Creatures

REEF Conservation Creatures are iconic marine species found throughout REEF’s nine Volunteer Fish Survey Project regions. From the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) to the Central Indo-Pacific (CIP), these marine creatures highlight the diversity of ocean ecosystems and encourage understanding and respect for marine life. Each plush comes with a collectable, laminated Conservation Card that provides information about the animal’s habitat, characteristics, potential threats, and global distribution in REEF's Survey Project regions.

These cuddly marine animals make the perfect educational gift for the ocean enthusiast in your life. Plushes are sold on the REEF website for $10 each, and if you buy three or more, you will receive a 15% discount. If you’d like to own all 11 Conservation Creatures, you may purchase the entire set for $88 (a savings of 20%!) You can view the entire collection online at www.REEF.org/creatures.

The REEF Conservation Creatures series includes:

Blue-spotted Ribbontail Ray

Clown Anemonefish

Common Lionfish/Invasive Red Lionfish

Giant Pacific Octopus

Green Sea Turtle

Leopard Shark

Oceanic Manta Ray

Palette Surgeonfish

Spotted Eagle Ray

Summer Flounder

Whale Shark

Lionfish - What We Know and What We're Learning

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Lionfish photo by Tom DeMayo
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Juvenile Lionfish photo by Tom DeMayo

If you’ve read recent REEF releases, you’ve heard the news that Indo-pacific lionfish are now well established along the eastern US coast and throughout the Bahamas. REEF has been and continues to work with researchers to learn as much as we can in order to most effectively address the invasion. Since January of this year, REEF has organized and led 5 week-long projects in the Bahamas to document the extent of the invasion and gather samples and information needed by NOAA and Bahamian researchers.

 
Here is what we’ve found:

  • Lionfish are being found as deep as 350’ and as shallow as 2’.
  • Lionfish have been documented in almost all habitat types including patch reefs, artificial reefs, walls, and even mangroves
  • Lionfish have been captured as small as 25mm and as large as 389mm
  • Most lionfish have been in the 200mm size range
  • Lionfish prey has included fish, shrimp and crabs
  • Lionfish appear to have high site fidelity (they don’t move much)
  • Lionfish appear to be reproducing year-round in Bahamian waters
  • The lionfish invasion appears to have come from a small founding population (not a large release of many fish)
  • Stomach content analysis has documented lionfish predation of cleaner fish
  • Every site visited in the Berries in April contained lionfish – most contained multiple fish

 
Here is what we are working on with NOAA and Bahamian researchers:

  • Continuing documentation of lionfish distribution and impacts on local fish populations
  • Documentation of lionfish at cleaning stations and subsequent predation on cleaning fish
  • Predation by other species on lionfish
  • Genetic relationships of lionfish in one area (NC, northern Bahamas) to those in other areas (S Bahamas) to determine dispersion pathways.
  • Parasitology of lionfish (they appear to have few parasite compared to native fish)
  • Larval occurrence at different locations using larval light traps
  • Juvenile recruitment preference using small shallow water nets and trawls
  • Trap preference of adult lionfish
  • Lionfish recruitment rates to sites denuded of lionfish (i.e., recruitment pressure)
  • Recruitment of lionfish to artificial structures
  • And more!

As part of this effort, REEF has planned more research efforts through the end of 2007. Each project will include participation of scientists, researchers, and/or REEF staff. For a list of upcoming projects visit http://www.reef.org/exotic/lionfish/ or e-mail lad@reef.org

The Call of the Deep Blue on a Landlocked Intern

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Joe Cavanaugh with our wonderful new intern Lauren.

As we continue to showcase our valuable interns, I mentioned in last months newsletter that we would introduce our remaining fall intern. With that thought in mind please join REEF in welcoming Lauren Finan.  Lauren is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, pursuing her studies in Environmental Policy which is why she was such a good candidate for our program.  She has a strong passion for the quality of our reefs and the ocean and diligently championed for our last remaining fall intern slot.  An avid diver since age 14, she became interested in the quality of our delicate ecosystem, however, due to her locale in Boulder, she was totally landlocked and did not have the ability to get out and dive, and she will be doing plenty of that now, along with working her way through the various levels of our Fish Identification Course.  Lauren role here at REEF will be the coordination of our presence at DEMA this year, as well as maintaining our membership data updates and working on the improvement of our educational/outreach program.  We're fortunate that both our fall interns will be with us until December.

REEF Welcomes New Office Manager

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Bonnie Greenberg recently joined REEF as the office manager. She brings with her more than 20 years of experience in non-profit management and entrepreneurship: including work with Marathon Community Theatre, Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys , director of marketing with a family business in Pennsylvania and a few years working as a journalist for local media. She likes to snorkel, sail, spend time with friends, read great books now and then, and create a good meal. Having said for years she was writing her own version of the Great American Novel - Bonnie spent the past two years as the front desk associate with a small Florida Keys Resort while she toiled at her story. She’s about half-way there. She holds a BFA from Emerson College. Bonnie resides in Key Largo, FL with her long-term boyfriend and 3 cats. Next time you find yourself in Key Largo, please swing by REEF HQ to meet Bonnie and the other REEF staff.

Believe It Or Not -- REEF Volunteers Grow a Coral Reef

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REEF volunteers measure their staghorn coral transplants.
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Ken Nedimyer clip a coral fragment from a "mother" colony for use as a transplant.
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A staghorn coral "garden" created with transplant fragments off Key Largo, FL. REEF volunteers helped create several of the coral modules last month.
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Ken, wife Denise and daughter Julia pose behind one of their remarkable coral creations.

During the last week of April, divers from around the country gathered at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Florida for a REEF Fish Behavior Tour hosted by Ned and Anna DeLoach. After making two morning dives each day, the group spent their late afternoons and early evenings attending entertaining talks about the myriad fish they encountered on the reef. Lad Akins, REEF’s Special Projects Director, dropped by to explain the science behind the recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish in the western Atlantic. But the highlight of the week was the rare opportunity for everyone to create their own coral garden.

Yes, you read it right: After being giving instructions by coral scientist Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation, participants headed out the following morning to Ken’s coral nursery located in Hawke Channel where they transplanted cuttings of staghorn coral from a mother colony onto a set of nursery blocks.

After watching 90 percent of the Keys’ staghorn coral die off from a variety of reasons over the past decades, Ken, an aquaculturist by trade, decided to do something about the disheartening problem. In the late 1990’s, he began nurturing small buds of rapidly growing staghorn that by chance settled on his underwater “live rock” farm. Following several years of trial and error, Ken pioneered the first successful method for cultivating and transplanting large quantities of coral. His current success rate hovers at an incredible 90 percent.

After the REEF divers carefully epoxyed their branches on numerically coded pedestals and recorded measurement data, the group headed off to a site on Molasses Reef where, in 1984 the M/V Wellwood, an ocean-going freighter, ran aground destroying 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Federal agencies began extensive restoration of the site in 2002 including emplacement of numerous high-profile limestone modules (click here to read about REEF's post-restoration monitoring of the fish populations on these modules). Unfortunately, to date, the new structures have had limited success recruiting new coral growth. However, the area has one extraordinary success story and the focus of our second dive: Ken’s rapidly growing staghorn coral garden – the two-year result of transplanting nursery grown corals to the grounding site.

Dates for next year’s 2nd Annual Key Largo REEF Fish Behavior Tour at Amoray are scheduled for May 29 to June 5, 2009. The popular fish behavior talks cover Reproductive Strategies, What Fish Eat, Cleaning Stations, Discovering the Night Reef, and Fish Life Cycles. Participants will once again establish their own coral colonies and transplant this year’s nursery crop onto the reef.

REEF Surveyor Notes a Rare Find

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A mystery fish, captured on film by REEF surveyor Rob McCall.
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The mystery fish turned out to be the rarely seen Pugjaw Wormfish.
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The swimming motion was sinuous, much like an eel.
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The wormfish shared a burrow with a yellowhead jawfish.

REEF TWA Advanced Assessment Team member, Rob McCall, has over 625 surveys under his belt and 281 fish species on his lifelist. But earlier this summer, during a dive in the Florida Keys, he found something that surprised him - the extremely rare Pugjaw Wormfish (Cerdale floridana). Here is his story -- Last June, while diving at Rock Key off Key West, I noticed a very slender (about the diameter of thin drinking straw) white fish about 6 cm long. I could see the fish had a rounded head but could not see dorsal or tail fins. The fish swam with a sinuous movement, much like an eel or worm, and dove into a burrow when it saw me. It did not immediately reappear and I soon swam off in search of other fish. That night I attempted to identify the mystery fish in my reference books, but was unable to get even a rough idea of what it might be.

Subsequent to the first sighting, I saw a similar fish on two other occasions at Rock Key. All sightings were within an area about 8 x 4 meters, with sand bottom bordered by high profile reef. On the second sighting, the fish dove into a burrow and did not reappear. On the third sighting, the fish immediately dove into a Yellowhead Jawfish burrow (the normal occupant was a male Yellowhead Jawfish who happened to be mouth-brooding eggs at the time; the jawfish was hovering above the burrow and did not seem particularly upset that the mystery fish “borrowed” his home.) The mystery fish did not reappear during the ten minutes or so I spent photographing the jawfish.

I stopped by REEF Headquarters in early August and asked Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, if he had any ideas to help me identify the fish. Based on my hazy description, Lad thought it might be a type of worm-eel. But when I researched online, it did not seem to be a good fit.

On August 22, while diving at Nine Foot Stake off Key West (and armed with my camera set up for macro) I came across one of the mystery fish – truly a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The fish was out in the open but dove into a nearby burrow – I don’t know if it was his or a “borrowed” one – when he saw me. I decided to wait a couple of minutes to see if it would reappear, and within a minute or two, it stuck its head back out. Over the next ten minutes it made several darting forays from the burrow, getting a little more used to me, or perhaps a little more desperate to get home. This fish seemed longer than the one(s) at Rock Key – perhaps 8 cm or so.

The four sightings shared some common features. All were at 20-24 ft. depth with sand bottom. Three of the four burrows were within 5-10 cm of small coral heads or rubble clumps. Dorsal and tail fins are visible in the photos; the fish is not actually as slender as it appears to the naked eye.

I was pretty well stumped over identifying what the fish was, even with photos, until one night I was re-reading Ned DeLoach and Paul Humman’s Reef Fish Behavior and under the article on Yellowhead Jawfish, I noticed a reference to Pugjaw Wormfish sharing a burrow with the jawfish. The next morning I researched it online and found a photo which appeared to be a very good match for my mystery fish.

We don’t know how rare the Pugjaw Wormfish might be, but according to the REEF database, they have been reported only five other times: one in Florida, one in Cuba and three in Bonaire. Convinced there are more Pugjaw’s waiting to make an appearance here in Key West, I’ve got the other instructors on our dive boat keeping their eyes open in the hopes that one of us will once again be in the right place at the right time.

Rob McCall is a scuba instructor in Key West and has been a REEF member and surveyor since 2000.

REEF Hits the Dive Shows!

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REEF Volunteers, April and Ron Theod talk REEF with a fellow diver while Tatum Semmens looks on.

REEF is taking our message on the road this spring and summer to a few of the regional dive shows. Last month, several volunteers and REEF Director of Science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, greeted visitors at the Northwest Dive and Travel Show in Tacoma, WA. The REEF booth provides an opportunity to spread the word about the fun of conducting marine life surveys and the valuable role that citizen science data can have in marine conservation and management. Our next stop is SCUBA Show 2009 in Long Beach, May 30 and 31. Come by and visit us at the booth!

REEF Trains Over 100 Divers in the Florida Keys As Permitted Lionfish Collectors

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Lad Akins demonstrates safe collection technique of the venomous lionfish during a workshop in the Florida Keys. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.
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Over 100 on-the-water professionals attended information sessions and training on the lionfish invasion. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.

REEF is working in close partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) to diligently track lionfish reports and initiate removal efforts in South Florida. The first confirmed lionfish in the Florida Keys was reported and captured within 24 hours in January 2009 (see previous enews article). Subsequent early reports in March-June were met with successful rapid response. However, beginning in July, reports began to increase beyond the capacity and range of available trained responders. To help combat the growing problem, REEF introduced over 100 on-the-water professionals to the latest lionfish information and collecting and handling techniques during workshops held in Key Largo, Marathon and Key West earlier this Fall. The workshops were funded by the NOAA Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

Because most Florida Keys reefs are managed under the guidance of the FKNMS and some of the most visited sites are no-take Sanctuary Protected Areas, special protocols and permits were developed to allow removal of lionfish in safe, effective and environmentally considerate manners. The goal of the program is to continue to track sightings and remove lionfish as soon as they are sighted to minimize impacts on key reef areas. Successful control of invasive lionfish requires adaptive management to include involving the general public and REEF is proud to be a part of this effort. With a large corps of dive professionals trained and additional workshops planned for early next year, the Keys are working to stay ahead of the invasion through early detection and rapid response. To report a lionfish sighting, visit REEF's Exotic Species Sighting Form -- http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report For more information on the program or to join in future workshops, contact Lad Akins at Lad@reef.org or call REEF HQ at (305) 852-0030.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub