The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Eileen Byrne

Sea Turtles - one of Eileen's favorite non-fish sightings! Photo by Carol Cox.

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 Eileen Byrne, a REEF surveyor from Massachusetts. Eileen joined REEF in 2004 and has conducted 59 surveys in both her home state and in the warmer waters of the Caribbean. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is the most interesting thing you've learned doing a REEF fish survey?

I try to find ways to give back in as many aspects of my life as possible. When I learned about REEF, the Great Annual Fish Count, and for what the data is used, I knew I had to participate. I do surveys on as many dives as I can throughout our season and volunteer assist at our local Great Annual Fish Count event.

When I give my dive briefings, I tell everyone that I dive really slowly. For emphasis, I add that moon snails have passed me! They chuckle, but once underwater, they see that I was not exaggerating. Back when I first started surveying, I was slowed by having to stop and think about or look at my cheat sheet to see exactly what fish I had just seen. During the pause, I always saw something else, and I learned that the best way to see things is to move, well, at a snail's pace. If I actually stopped and stared at the same spot for five minutes, I would see tons of stuff.

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

Aside from the water temperature and having to be completely covered in neoprene and still be cold, I love diving in New England. We have it all - eel grass, sandy bottoms, rubble, boulders, reefs, and wrecks. We have squid, shrimp, nudibranchs, and crazy looking fish such as the Sea Raven and Wolf Eel. Our fish may not be as colorful as tropical fish, but we can see some in late summer when they begin to wander into our water. Best of all though, is that local diving is a great day at the beach with friends, and is something we can do weekend after weekend for months at a time rather than once a year for a week.

Where is your favorite place to dive and why?

My favorite place to dive is Cozumel. I've done about 50 dives there in the past 18 months, and fall in love with the diving all over again every time I do my first dive. The reefs are super healthy, there is an abundance of fish and marine life, the water truly is as blue as it appears in photos, drift diving rocks once you get the hang of it, and I've found a dive operator that is perfect for me.

What is your favorite non-fish sighting?

Turtles!!!

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Never stop learning. Take every fish ID course, Fishinar, or whatever training opportunity possible to polish your skills and learn new fish. When you encounter something new underwater, ask your dive buddies what it was. Agree ahead of time on a signal that means "remember this fish and tell me what it is when we surface". Learn the signals so when someone sees something cool and signals it, you know exactly what to look for when you get to that spot.

REEF is Hiring

REEF is seeking to hire a Trips Program and Communications Manager to direct our Field Survey Trip Program, as well as develop initiatives to increase participation in, and awareness of, the broad suite of REEF programs and services. Do you know someone who is interested in joining our hard-working, dynamic team? The position is based at REEF HQ in Key Largo, Florida. More details can be found at http://www.reef.org/jobs.

REEF 2013 Annual Report Released

REEF Staff and Board members are proud to announce the release of our 2013 Annual Report. To view a PDF of the report online, click here. In this report, you will find updates on our membership, the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, regional activities, special projects including Invasive Lionfish Research and the Grouper Moon Project, data use and publications, our upcoming plans, and finances. We are truly grateful for all your support that made 2013 such a success! Please contact us if you have questions or want more information about any of the information presented in our Annual Report.

Putting It To Work: New Publication Evaluating Goliath Grouper

Goliath Grouper, a protected species. Photo by Carlos and Allison Estape.

Despite uncertainties surrounding the population status of the protected Atlantic Goliath Grouper’s, fishery managers in Florida are under pressure to end the harvest moratorium in place since 1990. A new study published this month in the scientific journal, Fisheries Research, sought to measure the proportion of anglers interested in reopening the Goliath Grouper fishery and to identify key reasons for this interest. The authors also estimated the amount that anglers would be willing to pay for a Goliath Grouper harvest tag (the right sold to an angler to harvest one Goliath Grouper). REEF data on Goliath Grouper were used to compare with the fishermen-perceived grouper population trends. REEF data have been cited as the best available index of abundance for Goliath Grouper in Florida (see Koenig et al., 2011, www.REEF.org/db/publications/9754). The study found that about half of Florida’s recreational anglers believe that the ban on fishing for Goliath Grouper should be lifted, with many anglers reporting that they feel "there are too many goliath grouper and that their populations need to be controlled." These anglers are willing to pay between $34 and $79 for the right to harvest one Goliath Grouper in Florida.

As fishery managers work to determine the future of Goliath Grouper in Florida and the rest of the southeast United States, this study's findings can help them better understand stakeholder intentions and better communicate to the public. Additionally, fishery managers can compare the amount of money recreational anglers are willing to pay to open the fishery to the amount of money other stakeholders, such as recreational divers who visit goliath grouper, are willing to pay to keep the fishery closed. The new paper is titled "Lifting the goliath grouper harvest ban: Angler perspectives and willingness to pay", and was published by Geoffrey Shideler, a scientist at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science University of Miami, and colleagues from NOAA Fisheries. Visit www.REEF.org/db/publications to see this and all of the scientific publications that have included REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project data.

REEF Fest 2015 Coming Up This Month

Have you registered for REEF Fest 2015 yet? It’s not too late! Join REEF, September 24th-27th, for a celebration of marine conservation success in the Florida Keys!

  • Don’t miss out on our free series of educational seminars, beginning at 1:30 PM each day, Thursday - Saturday. Topics include Fish ID, Sharks, Invasive Lionfish, Coral Restoration, Grouper Moon, and more!
  • Dive spaces are still available, Friday - Sunday mornings, with our generous partnering dive shops. Please call the shop directly to book your spot on fish surveying, lionfish collection, and artificial reef dives! Check out the list of shops and dives available on the REEF Fest website.
  • Join us for our evening socials, Thursday at the Caribbean Club and Friday for the Open House at REEF Headquarters.
  • Tickets are still available for the Saturday Evening Celebration Dinner Party, a night that you won’t forget! Tickets include a 3-course meal, live music, and silent and live auctions.

Get full event details and register for REEF Fest at www.reef.org/REEFFest2015

Connecting With Classrooms in the Grouper Moon Project

Elementary students in the Cayman Islands working on one of the REEF Grouper Education Program lessons.
Live video feed from 2013, connecting researchers diving at the aggregation site with classrooms. Photo by Joshua Stewart.
In collaboration with a team of engineers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography we are using a cutting-edge underwater microscope with plankton net attached to study the habitat around the spawn cloud. As water flows through, two high speed cameras within an underwater microscope capture images of zooplankton and eggs.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our partners at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are wrapping up two weeks of field work on Little Cayman for the Grouper Moon Project. Since 2002, the collaboration has conducted ground-breaking research on the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. Around winter full moons, Nassau Grouper leave their home reefs and aggregate in mass to spawn. January didn't turn out to be the big month for spawning, and therefore our team will return for the February full moon. Nevertheless, many of the fish (at least 1,000) showed up at the aggregation site and our team kept busy collecting ongoing monitoring data (counts, size of fish, and documenting behaviors), field testing cutting-edge tools such as an underwater microscope, and running the Grouper Education Program.

In 2011, with funding from Disney Conservation Fund, REEF launched the Grouper Education Program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting effort brings the Nassau Grouper in to elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field. The curriculum presents a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper in which students create their own understanding of this important fish. Key curricular concepts include the historical role of the species as an artisanal fishery throughout the Caribbean region, the grouper’s value as a keystone predator and its impact on local reef health, its role in today’s tourism-based economy in the Cayman Islands, and the conservation challenges facing Nassau Grouper given steep declines in populations. 

In January, we conducted four live-feed webcasts - three topside chats with scientists and one from underwater at a coral reef site along Bloody Bay Wall. All webcasts are archived on YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel online here. Over 200 students from 17 schools participated.

Several interesting video clips and stories from the field were posted on REEF's Facebook page.

The work of the Grouper Moon research project – a collaboration between REEF and the Cayman Island Department of Environment has led to fishing restrictions at the aggregation sites and an increase in numbers of the endangered fish. To find out more, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject. The Grouper Education Program is supported by a grant from the Disney Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support is provided by Peter Hillenbrand, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Reef DiversCayman Airways, and FLOW Cayman.

REEF Lionfish Expeditions Lead to New Information

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Pterois volitans AKA lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo
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August Blackbeard's Lionfish Project.
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Hesperis dissection by Everton Joseph (College of the Bahamas), Tim Schwab (Nassau Guardian) and Marcian Tucker (College of the Bahamas)
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Juvenile lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo

Working with leading scientists, REEF's lionfish field work is paying off in valuable information needed to address this key issue. Information from the five Bahamas projects conducted thus far this year is being used to help determine the range and extent of the lionfish invasion, as well as to address key questions on age/ growth, reproduction, genetics, parasites and habitat preference.

To date, more than 400 fish have been collected and shipped to the NOAA research lab in Beaufort NC and more than 500 sightings have been documented in the Bahamas. Data on length, plumage and stomach content have been gathered in the field, and samples for genetics and age/growth studies have been shipped to researchers.  REEF has worked in close partnership with the College of the Bahamas, researchers at UNCW, and Salisbury University, and local dive operators Bruce Purdy and Stuart Cove in gathering and analyzing the data.

Interesting data to date include:

  • Average size:188mm
  • Most species: Pterois volitans (though there are some Pterois miles present also)
  • Stomach content: about 70 % fish and 30 % crustacean with the most prevalent prey families including basslets, gobies and shrimp. Also found in stomachs: whole crab, whole sand diver, jawfish with eggs still in its mouth, and juvenile grouper (including Nassau)
  • Genetics: It appears that there were at least 11 females involved in the original founding population. This number is up from previous indications of four fish.
  • Reproduction: Fish are reproducing year-round with age at reproduction as young as 1-2 years.
  • Habitat preference: Lionfish have been found in almost all habitat types including artificial sites, canals, deep reefs, shallow reefs, small ledges and sand bottom.
  • Parasites: Compared to native fish, lionfish have almost no parasites, leaving more energy and time for growth and reproduction.
  • Growth: Lionfish appear to grow faster than similar sized native fish species like the graysby and the red hind.

REEF Remembers Chile Ridley

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Just before the holidays, REEF was saddened to learn of the passing of long-time volunteer and friend, Chile Ridley of Bonaire. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, especially his wife, Linda. The following article by Buddy Stockwell was published in the Caribbean Compass.

"On December 16, 2007 , the Cruising Community, the Island of Bonaire, and Mother Earth all lost one of their most wonderful, talented, and trusted friends. Edward Alton Ridley, known to all as " Chile" Ridley, took his own life at the age of 58. Chile was born in Valentine, Texas, and had battled the disease of depression all of his life. He is survived by his wife, Linda Ridley of Marfa, Texas . The Ridley's began their Cruising life aboard their Valiant 42 "Natural Selection" by departing Galveston in 1998 and sailing to St. Petersburg, Florida , where their new Valiant was part of the 1998 boat show. Thereafter, they cruised down the Eastern Caribbean , finally arriving in Bonaire five years later on Valentine's Day of 2003. As avid SCUBA divers, both Chile and Linda instantly fell in love with Bonaire and remained there as residents living aboard "Natural Selection." Chile was Manager of Bonaire's Capture Photo and also worked as a Dive Master. Most important, he was an indispensable volunteer for environmental organizations such as REEF, STINAPA and the Bonaire Seaturtle Conservation Project. Chile completed 300 Level 5 surveys for REEF, collected hundreds of amazing underwater images on film, and completed almost 2,000 dives. Chile's "True Grit" Texas spirit, fine character, and exceptional skills combined to make him an unflagging Champion of the environment like no other. Loved by all, Chile was not just a gentleman but a gentle man, always willing to lend a hand and always the first to volunteer. He will be missed by all who knew him, including all of the beautiful sea creatures of Bonaire that he loved so well and fought so hard to protect. The family asks that in lieu of cards or flowers, donations should be made in his name to support the Sea Turtle Conservation Project by visiting https://www.supportbonaire.org or to www.REEF.org for the fish survey projects."

New England Online Data Entry Teased Apart from TWA

REEF will separate our online dataentry interface for New England region from the tropical western Atlantic (TWA) where it currently resides, in the coming month.  Just in time for the Great Annual Fish Count, for more information, please contact gafc@reef.org or call 305-852-0030. We hope that this will facilitate an increase in the New England region survey efforts starting this summer.  In the next few weeks, login at http://www.reef.org/dataentry/login.php and you will be able to select New England for uploading New England fish surveys.  There are a few New England members who are willing to assist and guide those REEF members who are interested in participating in New England surveys.

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