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.
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 Mary Korte. Mary, and her husband Don, have been REEF members since 2001. Both are active surveyors, and Mary is a Level 3 surveyor in the TWA who has completed 284 surveys (all on snorkel!). Here’s what Mary had to say about REEF:
What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?
Everything! I especially love the Fishinars because they are a great way to improve my fish identification skills, and they boost my confidence in my ability to record species accurately. Fishinars also inspire me to read about the species and learn more about the fish behaviors I observe. I’d love to dive, but I can’t SCUBA dive due to my cardiac history. However, even as a snorkeler, I can contribute to the REEF database. I used to feel bad that I couldn’t dive, but REEF staff members have been wonderful and have told me that reporting data from the top 10-15 feet is important—I’m thankful for their encouragement. I also love that the REEF staff will help me identify “mystery fish” in photos I take while surveying.
If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?
My husband and I went on the first lionfish survey REEF organized in Curacao. Curacao is a special place for us because we’ve spent our wedding anniversary there every year for almost 15 years. It’s a wonderful island, and the fish life is amazing. It meant a lot to be able to help gather data on the lionfish invasion and hopefully make a difference in the future of the reef fish populations. Without a doubt, eating those pesky fish was the highlight. As our t-shirts say, “Wanted Dead and Grilled: Lionfish, Pirate of the Caribbean.” They make very tasty ceviche, too! We also loved the wonderful sunset sail the last night.
If you had to explain REEF to a friend in a couple of sentences, what would you tell them?
You’ve probably known birdwatchers who keep a life list of bird species they’ve seen. They may collect data, e.g. by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. REEF volunteers are “fishwatchers” who keep a life list of fish and collect data on fish abundance and biodiversity for a global database used by marine biologists to monitor the health of coral reefs worldwide. Over 60 scientific papers have been written using REEF data which is really amazing.
In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?
I think the most important aspect is that REEF’s professional staff and volunteer “citizen scientists” are enhancing our understanding of coral reef ecosystems and fish populations. REEF’s database is an invaluable resource for marine scientists, and it is a privilege to help gather information that is useful for their work. I believe humans have a unique responsibility to care for the environment and our fellow creatures. Hopefully we can collectively make a difference in preserving these special living organisms and places for future generations.
What is your favorite fish?
My favorite fish are the butterflyfish because we almost always find them swimming in pairs. My husband and I have been married 46 years and we always snorkel together so the butterflyfish remind me of all the wonderful years we’ve had together. Surveying for REEF is one of the things we most enjoy doing as a couple because we are both biology teachers and love the ocean.
Where is your favorite place to dive and why?
We’ve lived in Wisconsin for the last 20 years, but I really love being near the sea. I’ve completed most of my surveys in the tropical Western Atlantic although I’ve also surveyed in Hawaii and the Galapagos. This summer I’ll be in French Polynesia for a week, and I’m looking forward to adding new fish to my life list. We were there almost 30 years ago, and that is where my husband and I fell in love with snorkeling although we didn’t know about REEF back then. It’s really hard to pick one favorite place, but I especially like the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and Curacao because of the species diversity and beautiful water. Curacao probably tops my list because there are so many great places that are easily accessible from shore, and Playa Lagun is probably my favorite place to spend an afternoon there because I almost always see eels and interesting fish.
Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?
Slow down and take time to enjoy really watching the fish—don’t be in a hurry to move on to a new spot too quickly. Linger in one place and try to figure out what the fish are doing. It’s not just about identifying and counting fish—it’s also about relaxing and savoring the privilege to be in this environment. If you slow down, you’ll use more of your senses, notice more details, and begin to feel that you are a part of the ecosystem even if only briefly as a guest. Absorb the tranquility and drift with the fish—breathe slowly, feel the water, and go with the flow. Always, always carry a camera because you never know what you’ll find.
We hope to see you in Key Largo this Fall for REEF Fest 2016! Mark your calendar -- September 29 – October 2, 2016. Our annual celebration of marine conservation includes diving, educational seminars, and social gatherings! Check out www.REEF.org/REEFFest for more information.
Check out the great Fishinars we have planned for May! We invite everyone to join in the fun of learning in the convenience of your home, with these energetic and informative online webinars. Our Fishinars are free to REEF members, interactive (so you don't fall asleep), and chock full of tips and tricks to help you learn fish ID in many areas of the world.
In May and June, we have several great sessions in store:
Register and get more details here: www.REEF.org/fishinars. We hope to 'see' you online!
We are excited to share our 2017 REEF Trips Schedule, with a fantastic lineup of destinations planned. 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. To find out more or to book your space, contact us at trips@REEF.org or call 305-588-5869. Visit www.REEF.org/trips for full package details. Trips fill up fast so don't delay. And be sure to check out the remaining 2016 trips that still have space, including: Lionfish trips to Honduras and Curacao, Bermuda, Palau & Yap, Barkley Sound BC, Saba, Coronado Island CA, Belize, and Cozumel.
2017 REEF Field Survey Schedule
February 18 - 25 -- Dominica -- Dive Dominica & Castle Comfort Lodge, Led by Lad Akins
April 4 - 14 -- Solomon Islands -- M/V Bilikiki, Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens
April 22 - 29 -- Turks and Caicos Islands -- Dive Provo and Port of Call Resort, Led by Jonathan Lavan
May 14 - 21 -- Galapagos Islands -- M/V Galapagos Sky Liveaboard, Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens
June 10 - 16 -- Alaska Wilderness Expedition - Port Fidalgo Inlet, Alaska -- Ravencroft Lodge, Led by Andy Dehart
June 24 - July 1 -- Bahamas -- Lionfish Research Trip Explorer II Liveaboard, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes
June 24 - July 1 -- Roatan -- CoCo View Resort, Led by Janna Nichols and Scott & Patti Chandler
August 19 - 26 -- Curacao -- Lionfish Research and Fish ID Trip Combo GO WEST Diving and Kura Hulanda Lodge, Led by Lad Akins, Peter Hughes, and Ellie Splain
August 19 - 26 -- Sea of Cortez -- Rocio del Mar Liveaboard, Led by Christy and Brice Semmens, SOLD OUT
September 2 - 9 -- Bequia -- Bequia Dive Adventures and Village Apartments, Led by Paul Humann
October 1 - 8 -- Grand Cayman -- Sunset House, Led by Paul Humann
October 14 - 25 -- Indonesia Lembeh Strait -- Eco Divers, Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach, SOLD OUT
October 15 - 19 -- Hornby Island British Columbia -- Hornby Island Diving, Led by Janna Nichols
November 4 - 11 -- Bonaire -- Captain Don's Habitat, Led by Amy Lee and Janna Nichols
December 2 - 9 -- Cozumel -- Chili Charters and Casa Mexicana/Safari Inn, Led by Tracey Griffin
December 3 - 9 -- British Virgin Islands -- Cuan Law Liveaboard, Led by Ellie Splain