Making It Count - October 2016

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.

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The Faces of REEF: Laura Tesler

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 Laura Tesler. Laura lives in Oregon, and has been a REEF member since 2007. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Advanced Assessment Team (a Level 5 Expert surveyor). She has also conducted surveys in the TWA region and is a Level 3 Advanced surveyor there. To date, Laura has completed 239 surveys. Here’s what Laura had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF?

I have been a PNW REEF volunteer for 8 years and 44 weeks. In 2008 I heard from another diving friend about the surveys they were doing to assess marine health while diving. I was intrigued, and signed up for a REEF training taught by Janna Nichols. The rest is history.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

For me it is like being on a biological treasure hunt underwater. I have a list of species I would love to see and I am always hoping to see something off that list! REEF Trips and gatherings are really fun and educational, as you get to dive with really good divers and get into arguments about how many cirri the Scalyhead Sculpin you saw had for identification purposes. Who else do you know that gets excited about seeing a Red Brotula?

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

For me it is a 3-hour drive to a good diving site, usually in Puget Sound, Washington. Diving in Oregon is not very easy due to lack of protected areas for diving and shoreline access is limited. I’m used to the drive though!

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

I will openly admit I have a fascination with nudibranchs. They have perfectly evolved to capitalize on the marine environment in so many fascinating ways (external lungs, habitats, rhinophore shapes, etc). They also come in so many shapes, sizes and colors!

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

I have my own personal fish ID book library now and I am a member of a Facebook site called REEF Pacific Northwest Critterwatchers that is active with ID discussion, informational tidbits, upcoming dives, etc. When I dive I really go slow and take the time to look under, behind, and in things and I associate habitat with species when I do survey. I also try and watch REEF fishinars as they are produced. Of course the more surveying you do the better!

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REEF Fest 2016 a Success!

On behalf of all of us at REEF, thank you to those who were able to join us at REEF Fest 2016, our annual celebration of marine conservation. This year's event was our largest yet, with more than 400 guests in attendance! The four-day event, free and open to the public, featured ocean-themed seminars, social gatherings, SCUBA diving, and other eco-ventures alongside some of the most prestigious names in diving and marine conservation.

Our generous SCUBA diving operators made donations based on guest participation while other sponsors supported the event by donating to the silent auction, raising more than $12,000 to support REEF! These contributions will go a long way in supporting our numerous marine conservation programs. And a special thanks to our Platinum event sponsors: Divers Alert Network, Carrow Foundation, Atlantis Philippines Dive Resorts and Liveaboards, Quino El Guardian Liveaboards, and Eco Divers Resort.

In case you missed it, check out some of our event photos in the REEF Fest Facebook album.

We hope that you will join us for REEF Fest 2017, September 28 - October 1, in Key Largo, FL. Visit www.reef.org/REEFFest/savethedate for details.

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Digging for Data: a Fishinar on how to use the REEF Website reports

And now for something completely different - Ever wonder how you could use REEF's amazing, online, publicly accessible database to answer some common questions you might have?

Join REEF staff Ellie Splain and Janna Nichols for a free Fishinar that will answer those questions (we're mind readers and know what you'll ask) and give you tips and tricks along the way. -- Wednesday November 2nd, 8pm Eastern time. Register online at www.REEF.org/fishinars.

And don't miss our other upcoming Fishinars:

  • November 14th - Hawaii - Life in the Sand with Christy Semmens
  • December 15th - Don't Forget the Chubs and Porgies with Carlos and Allison Estapé
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    Annual REEF Monitoring Projects in the Pacific Northwest

    A YOY Canary Rockfish, one of many seen during 2016 summer projects in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Janna Nichols.
    One of REEF's AAT members, Greg Jensen, finishes off a survey dive. Photo by Janna Nichols.

    We recently conducted the 2016 surveys on two important long-term monitoring projects in Washington State. Data have been processed, and results are available for viewing. One of the most surprising results was the high abundance of many species of Young-of-the-Year (YOY, aka baby) Rockfish seen on both projects. This is a very unusual sighting, and possibly a good sign for things to come for these threatened species.

    The first project is the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary monitoring project, started in 2003. REEF Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) divers annually monitor fish and invertebrates in this remote area of rugged Washington State coastline. The team documented 100 species of fish and invertebrates, as well as YOY of 10 different rockfish species. Data for 2016 may be viewed here.

    The second project began in 2013, and monitors fish and invertebrates in Washington State's San Juan Islands, which are centrally located within the Salish Sea. This project is done in conjunction with the SeaDoc Society, and also uses the AAT members within the region. Data for this project may now be viewed here. Annual results from this project have been important in tracking the spread of Sea Star Wasting disease.

    Thanks to our many divers who lent their expertise in diving and identifying fish and invertebrates underwater, as well as the dive charters and donors who help fund these critical projects.

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    Book Your 2017 REEF Trip Now!

    The REEF Trip survey team in Palau.
    Barb Anderson and Pat Broom, learning together in the Philippines.
    Learn about the lionfish invasion on a REEF Trip in the Caribbean.
    Come enjoy crystal blue water in Bonaire next year with us.

    If you have been thinking about joining us on a REEF Trip in 2017, now is the time to book your space. We are looking for passionate ocean enthusiasts to join us! There are still some spaces left on the following trips. Trips sell out quickly, so book your space as soon as possible! 

    February 18 - 25, 2017 -- Dominica -- Dive Dominica & Castle Comfort Lodge, Led by Lad Akins, find out more

    April 4 - 14, 2017 -- Solomon Islands (one space left) -- M/V Bilikiki, Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens, find out more

    May 6 - 13 -- Turks and Caicos Islands -- Dive Provo and Ports of Call Resort, Led by Amy Lee, find out more

    May 14 - 21 -- Galapagos Islands (one space left) -- M/V Galapagos Sky Liveaboard, Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens, find out more

    June 24 - July 1 -- Bahamas (one space left) -- Lionfish Research Trip Explorer II Liveaboard, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes, find out more

    June 24 - July 1 -- Roatan -- CoCo View Resort, Led by Janna Nichols and Scott & Patti Chandler, find out more

    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, find out more

    October 1 - 8 -- Grand Cayman -- Sunset House, Led by Paul Humann, find out more

    October 15 - 19 -- Hornby Island British Columbia -- Hornby Island Diving, Led by Janna Nichols, find out more

    November 4 - 11 -- Bonaire -- Captain Don's Habitat, Led by Amy Lee and Janna Nichols, find out more

    December 2 - 9 -- Cozumel -- Chili Charters and Casa Mexicana/Safari Inn, Led by Tracey Griffin, find out more

    December 3 - 9 -- British Virgin Islands -- Cuan Law Liveaboard, Led by Ellie Splain, find out more

    The complete REEF Trips schedule is posted at: www.REEF.org/trips. Contact Amy Lee at trips@REEF.org or call 305-588-5869 to book your space or to find out more. Details on 2018 Trips coming this spring.

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    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub